August 7, 2019
A senior federal judge pressed Department of Justice attorneys in a Washington, D.C., courtroom on August 5 to explain why the American public shouldn’t be allowed to see redacted portions of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference into the 2016 elections—suggesting that he might be willing to consider releasing at least some of the restricted information, The Hill reported.
Judge Reggie Walton, who was appointed to the bench in 2001 by President George W. Bush, posed the questions during a hearing on a couple of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits seeking the redacted portions of the report.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and BuzzFeed News reporter Jason Leopold filed the lawsuits earlier this year. The cases have since been consolidated, and attorneys for each party split the arguments during Monday’s hearing, The Hill said.
During more than two hours of arguments, Judge Walton voiced his concerns—not only about the redactions, but about the conduct of Attorney General Bill Barr immediately following the release of the report.
I do have some concerns, because it seems to me difficult to reconcile the contents of the Mueller report and statements made by the attorney general [about the report],” Walton said of Barr’s four-page summary of the Mueller report—which asserted there had been “no collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia; and no obstruction of justice.
Mueller has since stated that his office did not investigate collusion but instead whether any Trump campaign officials conspired with Russians in 2016. And the former special counsel has repeatedly stated that his report does not exonerate President Donald Trump.
DOJ lawyer Courtney Enlow pushed back—saying that Barr was not required to release the report under the special counsel regulations, but did so anyway. She said the attorney general’s actions were in “good faith.”
However,attorneys for those seeking the unredacted portions of the report urged the judge to read the disputed redactions privately so that he could review them and determine if any of the information was already publicly available and no longer needed to redacted.
Enlow argued that rulings in previous FOIA cases mean that the administration doesn’t necessarily have to make that information publicly available.
However, Walton appeared skeptical. At several times throughout the hearing, he noted the high level of public interest in the redacted versions of the documents.
Mathew Topic, who was arguing on behalf of Leopold in court, also noted that releasing more details of the report could help resolve disputes about the origins of the Mueller investigation.
Topic pointed to Trump repeatedly referring to the probe as a politically motivated “witch hunt” and said that making the investigators’ findings fully available could help affirm or disprove those claims, The Hill reported.
Among the redacted information in the report being sought in these cases is grand jury information. The House Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Jerrold Nadler (New York), also filed an application in court last week seeking the grand jury materials.
But Enlow, in arguing that Walton should not make the information public, cited an opinion from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals handed down earlier this year that found a court doesn’t have the inherent authority to release grand jury materials.
Judge Walton did not provide a date for when his decision might be disclosed, saying that he is facing a “heavy” caseload at the moment. But he noted the high level of public interest in the case—and the inevitable prospect that whatever ruling he issues will be appealed—in saying he will work to make a decision soon.
Research contact: @thehill