The Justice Department is dropping its prosecution of Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, who admitted to lying to FBI agents about his discussions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. before attempting to withdraw his guilty plea.
The dramatic decision to drop the case, disclosed in a court filing on Thursday, comes after court documents were unsealed last month in which FBI officials discussed whether they should try to get Flynn to lie during an interview in January 2017 so that he could be prosecuted or fired from his White House post.
The move, backed by Attorney General William Barr, reflects a broader effort by Trump and his allies to redress what the president often calls a Democratic “hoax” and a “witch hunt” to tar his administration. It spares the president the politically sensitive question of whether to pardon Flynn if he was sentenced to prison in the midst of Trump’s re-election campaign.
Trump told reporters at the White House Thursday that he’d expected the charges against the retired general to be dropped, saying, “He’s an innocent man.” He called the Obama administration “scum” for initiating the prosecution against Flynn and said, “It’s treason.”
The reversal plays into Trump’s re-election strategy, as Flynn has become a symbolic figure among conservative activists who believe a cabal of government officials were out to take down the Trump administration.
In the court filing, the Justice Department said, “The Government is not persuaded that the January 24, 2017 interview was conducted with a legitimate investigative basis and therefore does not believe Mr. Flynn’s statements were material even if untrue.”
But the decision is likely to renew criticism that the Justice Department under Barr is making politically motivated calculations to benefit Trump.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my 14 years as a federal or state prosecutor,“ Elie Honig, a former prosecutor for New Jersey and Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said on CNN.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadlercalled the dropping of charges “outrageous.”
“Flynn PLEADED GUILTY to lying to investigators. The evidence against him is overwhelming,” Nadler said in a tweet. “Now, politicized DOJ is dropping the case.”
In February, Barr revealed that he established a private channel for Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to relay his allegations on Ukraine, and ordered prosecutors to reduce their sentencing recommendation for another Trump associate, Roger Stone.
Flynn served as the president’s national security adviser for three weeks before he was fired for lying about his contacts with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S. at the time. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents in December 2017 and agreed to cooperate.
He reversed course this January before he could be sentenced, deciding to fight the Justice Department. Prosecutors slammed the move, pointing out that Flynn had admitted to the crime while he was under oath and agreed to cooperate in a bid for a lighter sentence.
A U.S. district judge last month unsealed several pages of FBI emails and handwritten notes about the January 2017 interview with Flynn. The notes indicated FBI officials knew Flynn might lie to them, and one note asked whether the goal of the interview should be to “get him to lie so we can prosecute him or get him fired?”
The context of the notes isn’t clear, and some parts remain redacted, including the nature of the evidence that the agents indicated they could present to Flynn during the interview.
Trump asked for Flynn’s resignation in February 2017, just weeks after he took office, in part on the grounds that he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about conversations with the Russian ambassador. Flynn said in his resignation letter that he had “inadvertently” misinformed Pence as well as Trump that he hadn’t discussed the future of U.S. sanctions with the ambassador.
Since then, Trump has repeatedly praised and defended Flynn. Pence also has apparently had a change of heart. The vice president said on April 30 he increasingly believes Flynn didn’t intend to mislead him about conversations with the Russian ambassador.
“I’m more inclined to believe it was unintentional than ever before,” Pence told reporters. “When you see the nature of abusive actions by Justice Department officials toward him, it’s deeply troubling.”
Federal prosecutors had reversed course several times on their recommendation for Flynn’s sentence.
In 2018, the government recommended that Flynn receive probation based on his cooperation with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. The Justice Department changed its position and sought jail time after Flynn became more combative in response to Mueller’s probe.
In January, prosecutors made a surprising reversal, backing Flynn’s request for probation even through he failed to provide substantial assistance to their investigations.
— With assistance by Erik Larson
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