Justice Department Turns Over Unredacted Mueller Report to Federal Judge

Justice Department Turns Over Unredacted Mueller Report to Federal Judge
Former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on July 24, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Janita Kan

The Justice Department (DOJ) has turned over an unredacted version of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election to a federal judge who demanded earlier this month to see the report.

DOJ attorneys notified the judge in a filing to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia about the delivery of the documents. The documents were submitted to the court pursuant to two orders made by District Court Judge Reggie Walton on March 16.

“Pursuant to those Orders and instructions from chambers, on March 30, 2020, undersigned counsel hand-delivered two paper copies and one electronic copy of the two records at issue to chambers,” the court filing stated.

Walton had ordered the department to submit the unredacted version of the Mueller report to the court for an “in camera review,” which means the judge will have a chance to privately look through the document. It also ordered the submission of “unredacted copies of the final two pages of its October 10, 2019, production” for the court’s private review.

The orders arose from a freedom of information lawsuit brought by BuzzFeed, its investigative journalist Jason Leopold, and Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a nonprofit research center. EPIC said in a June 24 court filing (pdf) that the DOJ’s handling of the report’s release provides “tangible evidence of agency bad faith.”

A senior counsel at the DOJ, Vanessa Brinkmann, noted in the cover letter submitting the documents dated March 25 that the previously redacted portions in the report are highlighted and the corresponding exemption of the Freedom of Information Act is written on the right or left margin of the report. Some of the exemptions under the act include redactions to protect personally identifiable information about individuals, federal grand jury information, and intelligence sources and methods.
While the report has been delivered, Walton noted that the court won’t be able to review the document immediately because of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus, pandemic.

“Consistent with the Defendant’s Notice of Submission of Documents for In Camera Review, the Court has received the unredacted version of the report regarding Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States presidential election,” Walton wrote in a Minute Order on March 30.

“However, in light of the Chief Judge Howell’s March 16, 2020 Order Regarding Court Operations in Exigent Circumstances Created by the COVID-19 Pandemic, Standing Order No. 20-9 (BAH), the Court’s review of the unredacted version of the Mueller Report is unable to occur until the Court resumes its normal operations on April 20, 2020, unless the Court’s normal operations are further suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added.

Walton, an appointee of President George W. Bush, had several complaints about Attorney General William Barr’s handling of the release of the Mueller report. He pointed out that there were inconsistencies between the report and Barr’s summary of investigative findings he provided prior to the report’s release.
“The speed by which Attorney General Barr released to the public the summary of Special Counsel Mueller’s principal conclusions, coupled with the fact that Attorney General Barr failed to provide a thorough representation of the findings set forth in the Mueller Report, causes the Court to question whether Attorney General Barr’s intent was to create a one-sided narrative about the Mueller Report—a narrative that is clearly in some respects substantively at odds with the redacted version of the Mueller Report,” Walton said (pdf).

He also raised concerns that Barr’s statements prior to the report’s release were made in an attempt to “influence public discourse about the Mueller report in favor of President Trump.”

“The inconsistencies between Attorney General Barr’s statements, made at a time when the public did not have access to the redacted version of the Mueller Report to assess the veracity of his statements, and portions of the redacted version of the Mueller Report that conflict with those statements cause the Court to seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller Report in favor of President Trump despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the contrary,” Walton wrote.

DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec pushed back on Walton’s opinion a day later, saying that the court’s assertions were “contrary to the facts.”

“The original redactions in the public report were made by Department attorneys, in consultation with senior members of Special Counsel Mueller’s team, prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Offices, and members of the Intelligence Community,” Kupec said in a statement at the time.

“In response to FOIA requests, the entire report was then reviewed by career attorneys, including different career attorneys with expertise in FOIA cases—a process in which the Attorney General played no role. There is no basis to question the work or good faith of any of these career Department lawyers.”

She added that the DOJ stands by its work as well as Barr’s statements and efforts to provide transparency in connection to the report.

The Mueller report, released last April, “did not establish” that the Trump campaign and Russia had conspired or coordinated to influence the 2016 presidential election. Moreover, Mueller didn’t make a determination as to whether the president obstructed justice, later saying it was due to a DOJ policy that prohibits charging a sitting president with a federal crime.

Petr Svab contributed to this report.