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What you need to know about the redacted Barr memo released by the DOJ

Late last night, the Justice Department released a memo addressed to then-Attorney General William Barr from its office of legal counsel. The memo formed Barr's decision not to charge former President Donald Trump with obstruction of justice. John Yang gets more from Noah Bookbinder, president and CEO of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which sued for the memo's release.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Late last night, the Justice Department released a document that played an important role in the decision not to charge former President Trump with obstruction of justice.

    Our John Yang explores.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, the nine-page memo was sent to then-Attorney General William Barr by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. That's the office that gives legal advice to government agencies. Barr said it was the basis for his conclusion that there was not enough evidence to establish that President Trump broke obstruction of justice laws.

    A watchdog group sued to make it public. And, earlier this month, a judge said it must be released.

    Well, last night, the Justice Department released a heavily redacted version of it, and said it would continue to fight in court to keep the rest of it secret.

    Noah Bookbinder is president and CEO of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also known as CREW. CREW is the group that sued for the memo's release.

    Mr. Bookbinder, thanks so much for joining us.

    You filed — your group filed this suit literally the afternoon of Attorney General Barr's news conference. What does this struggle over this document, whether to keep it secret or not, what does this represent to you, sort of the larger implications of this struggle?

  • Noah Bookbinder:

    Absolutely.

    Well, what it looked like happened back when the Mueller report came out was that the attorney general and people at the Justice Department reporting to him — this is Bill Barr — set out not to do a real legal analysis of whether Donald Trump had obstructed justice, but rather to publicly defend Donald Trump and to make the case for why he hadn't done anything wrong.

    And that's why we wanted to see this memo that he said he relied on to make this announcement that there was no basis to say that Donald Trump had obstructed justice. And the Justice Department has fought for years to keep it from going public, I think, in large part because it does show that there was a whitewashing to protect the then-president.

  • John Yang:

    What did we learn? We got two — we got a page-and-a-half, essentially, last night. What did we learn in that page-and-a-half?

  • Noah Bookbinder:

    Well, what we did learn is — and we really got two things. We got that page-and-a-half, and then we got the full, unredacted version of a federal judge's opinion talking about this document and about this case.

    And from those two things, we did learn that the Justice Department lawyers essentially said that what they were thinking about was not so much the legal analysis, but the case that could be made to the public.

    And so it really was starting to kind of blow the lid off of this and show that what we all thought was happening really was what was happening.

  • John Yang:

    And Judge Amy Berman Jackson's ruling does have some pretty strong language about the Justice Department.

    They said — she wrote that she was — she looked at the unredacted memo. And she wrote: "The DOJ," the Justice Department, "has been disingenuous to this court with respect to the existence of a decision-making process that should be shielded by the deliberative process privilege."

    In other words, she's saying here that the — that this is not a decision-making process, because the decision has already been made.

  • Noah Bookbinder:

    That's right.

    I mean, the way that she laid it out is, the Justice Department was clear that they weren't going to prosecute Donald Trump. They believed their rules set out that you couldn't prosecute a sitting president. So, essentially, this was sort of a P.R. Document. This is, what should we say to the public?

    And for the Justice Department to come and say this was some kind of deliberative pre-decisional document is not really honest, because there wasn't a legal decision being made.

    And we really had hoped that, having gotten this just absolutely scathing decision from Judge Jackson, that the Justice Department would look at this and say, now is the time to really, really go for a clean slate and sort of admit that the department, under Bill Barr, had been dishonest, behaved badly, and now it's time to come clean, produce the document, and clean up the department, and show that it's not going to be used for the protection of any president.

    And it's disappointing that, instead, they have chosen to continue fighting this case.

  • John Yang:

    Noah Bookbinder of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, thank you very much.

  • Noah Bookbinder:

    Thanks so much for having me.

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