The Justice Department is appealing a court order that a key 2019 memo about whether then-President Donald Trump obstructed the Russia investigation be made public.
Because of the appeal, some parts of the nine-page memo will likely remain hidden for the time being while the case is being resolved. Some portions of the memo were released by the Justice Department on Monday, though the newly unredacted sections did not reveal many new details about then-Attorney General William Barr’s decision that Trump should not be charged with any crimes.
The memo was previously available to the public in a heavily redacted form. However, if the full version is ever made public, it could shed new light on how Trump’s Justice Department appointees justified why he shouldn’t be charged, despite special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation finding strong evidence that Trump obstructed the investigation on multiple occasions.
The decision to appeal is a watershed moment for Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Biden-era Justice Department, and it will undoubtedly disappoint many Trump critics who hoped the latest release would reveal damaging information about the former President and his attorney general. Garland’s department defended some of the actions taken by the department under Barr in court filings Monday, arguing that most of the memo should remain out of public view.
The two-page section of the memo that was unredacted late Monday night mostly contained bureaucratic explanations of why it was written, and did not include the section where Trump’s behavior was analyzed through a prosecutorial decision-making process.
According to the newly released portions of the memo, top Trump appointees told Barr that the Mueller report’s “failure to take a position” on whether to charge Trump “might be read to imply such an accusation if the confidential report were released to the public,” and that “as a result, we recommend that you examine the Report to determine whether prosecution would be appropriate.”
Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered the memo’s release earlier this month, blasting the Trump administration’s Justice Department for misleading her about the memo’s secrecy. Officials from the Justice Department claimed that Barr used the memo to determine whether Trump should be charged with obstruction of justice, but Jackson concluded that Barr had already made up his mind.
The federal judge’s stinging decision was yet another rebuke for Barr. Several federal judges, Mueller himself, legal experts, and many Democratic officials have slammed Barr’s handling of Mueller’s findings, claiming that he misled the public by selectively quoting and cherry-picking Mueller’s report to protect Trump and mitigate any fallout.
The Department of Justice announced Monday night that it would appeal Jackson’s decision. The department claimed in a separate filing that previous assertions by top prosecutors and officials were not clear enough, but that it had not deceived the court on purpose.
“In retrospect, the government acknowledges that its briefs could have been clearer, and it deeply regrets the confusion that caused. But the government’s counsel and declarants did not intend to mislead the Court,” Justice Department officials wrote in the court filing Monday night.
The Justice Department’s appeal does not necessarily imply that the Biden administration agrees with the Trump administration’s handling of the memo. Although this case concerns the Mueller investigation, the decision could have ramifications in other public records cases. For decades, Justice Department officials under both Republican and Democratic presidents have fought to keep internal documents secret.
The nine-page memo is part of an ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group that has been harshly critical of the Trump administration.