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U.S. releases 2019 memo that argued against charging Trump with obstruction

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Justice Department on Wednesday released under court order all of a 2019 memo https://www.justice.gov/file/1528466/download in which two top officials advised then-Attorney General William Barr not to charge then-President Donald Trump with obstructing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Barr’s decision to clear Trump after receiving the memo drew criticism from many Democrats and some former Justice Department lawyers, who accused the top U.S. law enforcement official of protecting his boss. Mueller himself did not exonerate Trump of committing obstruction of justice in trying to impede the probe.

The department had released parts of the nine-page memo while keeping other portions secret. The government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sued to challenge those redactions, leading a federal appeals court in Washington last week to order its full release.

“The memo presents a breathtakingly generous view of the law and facts for Donald Trump,” CREW said in a statement. “Among many other problems, it is premised on the fact that there was no underlying criminal conduct, which is not what Mueller found, and waives its hand at there being no exact precedent to compare it to.”

The March 24, 2019, memo was written by Steven Engel, then head of the department’s Office of Legal Counsel, and Edward O’Callaghan, another top department official. They wrote that charging Trump with obstruction would be problematic because the entire first section of Mueller’s report did not find sufficient evidence that Trump or any member of his campaign team had illegally conspired with Russia.

“Given that conclusion, the evidence does not establish a crime or criminal conspiracy involving the President toward which any obstruction or attempted obstruction by the President was directed,” the memo concludes.

It also said Mueller’s investigation was not “similar to any reported case that the department has previous charged” using obstruction statutes.

“The memo supports the chilling conclusion that any president can interfere with any investigation if they believe it could damage them politically,” CREW said.

Mueller, a former FBI director appointed as special counsel by then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, released a 448-page report documenting Russia’s election interference to sow U.S. discord, boost Trump’s chances and disparage his Democratic opponent Clinton. The report detailed numerous contacts between Trump campaign figures and Russians.

It also laid out 10 episodes in which Trump sought to impede Mueller’s probe including firing then-FBI Director James Comey and directing then-White House counsel Don McGahn to tell Rosenstein that Mueller must be dismissed, which McGahn declined to do.

After reading Mueller’s report, Barr decided it was up to him as attorney general to decide whether to charge Trump with obstruction, and he sought input from Engel and O’Callaghan, leading to the memo.

Barr also has faced criticism from U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who first ordered the department to release the memo after concluding he had been “disingenuous” in the way he described Mueller’s findings to the public when he issued his own summary of the special counsel’s findings ahead of the full public report.

Trump, considering another presidential run in 2024, is facing a slew of federal and state investigations into other matters including his removal of classified records after leaving office in 2021.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham)