Justice Department memo exonerating Donald Trump was a 'fundamental betrayal': former solicitor general
Since leaving the White House, former President Donald Trump hasn’t been shy about lambasting former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr— who he now despises for refusing to go along with the Big Lie and Trump’s false, totally debunked claim that widespread voter fraud occurred in the 2020 presidential election. Trump now views Barr as a Republican who, like former Vice President Mike Pence, didn’t have the courage to stick by him.
But before the election, Barr’s critics often slammed him for being a Trump loyalist who defended Trump vigorously after former Special Counsel Robert Mueller delivered his final report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Attorney Neal Katyal, in an op-ed published by the New York Times on August 30, offers some reasons why a recently released March 24, 2019 memo paints such a troubling picture of Barr and his relationship with then-President Trump.
The memo, released by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on August 21, details Barr’s justifications for the DOJ clearing Trump of obstruction charges. These days, Trump views Barr as a traitor to the MAGA cause. But in 2019, he praised Barr as someone who had the backbone to come through for him in a way that former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn’t.
“The memo released last week by the Justice Department closing the book on the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election is a frightening document,” explains Katyal, a former solicitor genreal who is often featured as a legal expert on MSNBC. “Critics have rightly focused on its substance, slipshod legal analysis and omission of damning facts. But the process by which that memo, sent in March 2019, came to be is just as worrisome.”
The attorney continues, “Delivered to the attorney general at the time, Bill Barr, the memo was written by two political appointees in the Justice Department. Mr. Barr used the memo to go around the special counsel regulations and to clear President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice. If left to fester, this decision will have pernicious consequences for investigations of future high-level wrongdoing.”
Katyal goes on to offer some more reasons why he finds the March 24, 2019 memo so troubling. As Katyal sees it, the memo is an example of the United States’ system of checks and balances being undermined during the Trump years.
“The 2019 memo tendentiously argued that Mr. Trump committed no crimes — leaving the final decision on the matter to Republican-aligned appointees instead of to the independent special counsel,” Katyal notes. “The challenge in devising the regulations was to develop a framework for the prosecution of high-level executive branch officials — which is harder than it sounds, because the Constitution requires the executive branch to control prosecutions. So, we are left with one of the oldest philosophical problems: Who will guard the guardians?”
During Mueller’s investigation, many MAGA Republicans tried to paint him as a Democratic partisan — even though the former FBI director was a conservative and a lifelong Republican who had been on very friendly terms with the George W. Bush Administration. But during the Russian investigation, Mueller’s admirers often praised him for valuing country over party. When Democrats and Never Trump conservatives used the word “institutionalist” to describe Mueller in 2017 or 2018, it was meant as high praise.
A special counsel in a federal investigation, Katyal stresses, needs to be someone who is independent rather than partisan — which Special Counsel Mueller was. But Barr, Katyal laments, undermined Special Counsel Mueller’s work in the end.
“We created the role of special counsel to fill a void — to concentrate in one person responsibility and ultimate blame so that investigations would not be covered up from the get-go and to give that person independence from political pressure,” Katyal writes. “It is outrageous that Mr. Barr acted so brazenly in the face of this framework. The point of requiring a special counsel was to provide for an independent determination of any potential criminal wrongdoing by Mr. Trump. But the political appointees in his Justice Department took what was the most important part of that inquiry — the decision of whether he committed crimes — and grabbed it for themselves. This was a fundamental betrayal of the special counsel guidelines not for some principle, but because it protected their boss, Mr. Trump.”
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