The Justice Department is dropping its case against President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn in the midst of a review into the former Army general’s prosecution.
The decision, sure to ignite fresh speculation about Attorney General William Barr’s close relationship with the White House, comes just more than a week after Trump claimed that newly released FBI notes exonerate Flynn, even though he pleaded guilty to charges of lying about contacts with a Russian ambassador.
Before Thursday’s decision, Flynn had sought to withdraw his guilty plea, in which he admitted to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump’s inauguration.
“They tormented him – dirty cops tormented Gen. Flynn,” Trump told reporters at the White House last week.
In new court documents, federal prosecutors asserted the FBI’s interview of the then-national security adviser was “unjustified.”
Federal prosecutors, in the court documents, claimed that the FBI’s January 2017 interview of then-national security adviser was “unjustified.”
“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,” the documents state. “Moreover, we do not believe that the government can prove either the relevant false statements or their materiality beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The abrupt decision by the Justice Department flies in the face of a searing rebuke of Flynn by the federal judge who was weighing his sentencing in December 2018.
“Arguably, you sold your country out,” U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said then. “I’m going to be frank with you,” Sullivan said. “This is a very serious offense. It involves making false statements to the FBI on the premises of the White House – in the West Wing!”
The interview with FBI agents occurred in Flynn’s White House office, four days after he assumed his post as national security adviser.
A final decision on whether the case against Flynn is scuttled will be up to Sullivan, who until Thursday had been weighing Flynn’s new effort to withdraw his guilty plea.
Speaking to reporters Thursday in the Oval Office, Trump said he didn’t know the Justice Department would be dropping the case against Flynn.
“I felt it was going to happen, just by watching and seeing like everybody else does,” Trump said. “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.”
Trump slammed the Obama administration’s Justice Department and accused it of committing treason.
“They’re dishonest, crooked people,” he said. “They’re scum – and I say it a lot – they’re scum. They’re human scum.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat, said the Flynn decision “does not exonerate” the former general.
“But it does incriminate Bill Barr. In the worst politicization of the Justice Department in its history.”
Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his communication with Kislyak in the weeks before Trump took office.
His ultimate sentencing, however, had been stalled in federal court for more than a year after he dumped his initial defense team and hired new attorneys, alleging he was framed in a government conspiracy.
His defense team, led by conservative lawyer and Fox News commentator Sidney Powell, accused federal prosecutors forcing him to admit to crimes he didn’t commit and hiding evidence that would have exonerated him.
Sullivan had rejected those claims, and as recently as February prosecutors said Flynn had failed to identify any specific government misconduct that would call for his case to be dismissed.
That same month, Barr appointed Missouri U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Jensen to review the Flynn prosecution.
Barr’s decision to review the case capped a contentious period earlier this year at the Justice Department, which had faced increasing allegations of succumbing to political pressure from Trump.
About the same time, Justice unleashed an uproar after it intervened to reduce its recommended prison sentence for Roger Stone, a longtime friend and ally of Trump who was convicted of seven felonies, including lying to Congress.
Career prosecutors who handled the case had asked for a sentence of seven to nine years in prison, which Trump said was a “miscarriage of justice.”
Justice overruled the attorneys, saying the prison recommendation was too harsh. The prosecutors withdrew from Stone’s case in apparent protest. One resigned from the Justice Department altogether.
Barr pushed back against criticism that he was doing Trump’s bidding, saying in a subsequent ABC interview that Trump “has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.”
Yet the string of developments have placed the Justice Department’s leadership, particularly Barr, under a harsh spotlight. Democrats have accused Barr of meddling in criminal cases for political purposes and have repeatedly called him to testify before Congress.
The decision to drop Flynn’s case also casts new speculation on an ongoing inquiry into the origins of the Russia investigation.
That inquiry, which Barr launched last year, focuses on whether federal investigators abused their surveillance authority in the initial stages of the Russia investigation. John Durham, Connecticut’s chief federal prosecutor, is leading the review.