WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is dropping its case against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty, twice, to lying about contacts with a Russian ambassador before asking to withdraw his pleas.
President Donald Trump on Thursday called his first national security adviser a “great warrior” after federal prosecutors asserted the FBI’s interview of the former Army general was “unjustified.”
The decision is likely to spark a partisan clash over the Russia investigation handling , an contentious issues for both sides of the aisle.
“Weaponizing the FBI and its surveillance powers to target General Flynn and others associated with President Trump will go down as one of the greatest abuses of power by an administration in American history,” Brad Parscale, the president’s 2020 campaign manager, said in a statement Thursday.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat, said the Flynn decision “does not exonerate” Flynn and rather “incriminates” Attorney General William Barr, adding that this is “the worst politicization of the Justice Department in its history.”
Here’s what we know about Flynn and his case:
Who is Michael Flynn?
Flynn briefly served as Trump’s first national security adviser. He accepted the position on Nov. 18, 2016, after President Barack Obama repeatedly warned Trump against hiring him, citing “profound concerns.”
The FBI interviewed Flynn in January 2017 about his relationship with Russia. He then resigned from his position 24 days into the new administration, amid revelations that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and others about conversations he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about sanctions before Trump took office.
Flynn, who famously called for the jailing of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Republican convention, served in the Army for 33 years, eventually reaching the rank of lieutenant general before his retirement in 2014. He was the head of military intelligence as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Obama administration.
What he is accused of
Prosecutors alleged Flynn “did willfully and knowingly make materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” to FBI agents during a January 2017 interview about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
This interview with the FBI agents occurred in Flynn’s White House office, four days after he assumed his post as national security adviser.
According to these allegations, Flynn falsely told the agents that he did not ask Kislyak to delay a vote on a pending United Nations Security Council resolution critical of Israeli settlements.
Additionally, in a series of late December telephone calls, just weeks before Trump’s inauguration, prosecutors asserted that at least one “senior” transition team member — working then from Trump’s Mar-a-Largo resort — helped craft Flynn’s discussions with Kislayk, which urged the Russians to moderate their response to sanctions leveled just a day earlier by the Obama administration.
Flynn was the fourth former Trump aide out of more than half a dozen to face criminal charges in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, but the first to be prosecuted for things that happened during the Trump administration.
Pence didn’t find out about the Justice Department’s warnings about Flynn until the Washington Post reported in February 2017 that Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russians.
The vice president and others then sought access to and reviewed the government’s information about Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador, according to the Post report.
Pence announced that Flynn assured him the subject of sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Russia were not raised in his conversations with Kislyak after the election. Authorities who had monitored communications involving foreign diplomats knew that was not the case.
Cooperation with the Mueller investigation
Citing the “substantial” assistance provided by Flynn in the year after taking a plea deal, Mueller initially recommended no prison time.
The court documents indicated that Flynn had met with investigators 19 times during 2018 in which he had been cooperating with Mueller’s team on multiple investigations, including the special counsel’s inquiry of possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Mueller’s office found that the Russian government undertook a “sweeping and systematic” campaign to help Trump win the White House in 2016, believing it would benefit from his presidency. However, his team said it did not find evidence that Trump or his associates conspired with Russians to sway the election, though investigators found that the then-candidate and his campaign aides were eager beneficiaries of Russia’s help.
Flynn pleaded guilty, twice. He has now asked to withdraw that plea
Flynn’s first guilty plea in December 2017 in federal court was the dramatic culmination of an investigation Trump repeatedly called a “witch hunt.”
He also entered a guilty plea for a second time in 2018 at a sentencing hearing.
As part of his plea, Flynn admitted to lying about Turkish lobbying and research work. He belatedly registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for the work weeks after he left the White House.
In December 2018, when Flynn appeared in federal court to declare he was ready to accept responsibility for his crimes and proceed to sentencing, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan gave a blistering rebuke, saying Flynn “sold” his country out.
Flynn attempted to withdraw his plea in January, after prosecutors said he should serve up to six months in prison for the crime, a reversal from when they viewed Flynn as a cooperating witness who provided them with “substantial” assistance.
Prosecutors then softened their position, suggesting that probation could be an “appropriate” sentence.
Flynn’s defense team accused the Justice Department and FBI of forcing him to admit to crimes he did not commit. He also said his initial lawyers gave him ineffective counsel when negotiating his plea.
His case has been stalled in federal court for more than two years as his defense team alleges a government conspiracy to frame him.
AG Barr announces review of Flynn case
Attorney General William Barr appointed Jeffrey Jensen, the chief federal prosecutor in St. Louis nominated by Trump in 2017, to conduct a review into the criminal case of Flynn.
The review led to new documents that were released that Trump said “exonerates” Flynn. They include notes from the FBI interview with Flynn that appeared to describe how the agency approached it, including what to do if he lied. The notes also show that investigators predicted Flynn would lie to the FBI and mulled over how to respond if he did.
“What is our goal? Truth/admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” handwritten notes said. “We regularly show evidence, with the goal of getting them to admit their wrongdoing.”
“If we get him to admit to breaking the Logan Act, give facts to DoJ and have them decide,” they say at another point.
Many seized on these notes as proof Flynn was unfairly targeted, but some legal analysts viewed them as run-of-the-mill, and argued the FBI had good reason to believe Flynn had lied.
Barr was accused of allowing his relationship with Trump to get in the way of Justice Department investigations. Democrats have called on Barr to testify before Congress. Barr also launched his own inquiry into the origins of the Russia probe.
Trump said regarding the DOJ dropping the case that he “felt it was going to happen, just by watching and seeing like everybody else does.”
“He was an innocent man. He is a great gentleman who was targeted by the Obama administration. He was targeted in order to try to take down a president. What they’ve done is a disgrace, and I hope a big price is going to be paid,” the president continued.
Barr has faced criticism before for his handling of sensitive investigations relating to Trump associates, including Flynn and that of GOP operative Roger Stone.
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee originally scheduled Barr to testify in late March, before the coronavirus pandemic upended Congress’s calendar. They said that Barr would be questioned about “the misuse of our criminal justice system for political purposes.”
Barr insisted in a CBS interview on Thursday that he was not doing the president’s bidding in Flynn’s case, saying, “I’m doing the law’s bidding. I’m doing my duty under the law, as I see it.”
Contributing: Jeanine Santucci, Kevin Johnson, Christal Hayes, Brad Heath, Gregory Korte, Kevin Johnson, David Jackson, Kristine Phillips, Michael Collins, USA TODAY