- The Justice Department on Thursday filed a motion to drop its case against the former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
- Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to one count of lying to the FBI during an interview on January 24, 2017.
- But he moved to withdraw his guilty plea after his lawyers accused the government of prosecutorial misconduct and entrapment during the interview.
- The department said in its filing on Thursday that it “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.”
- Shortly before the department filed its motion, Brandon Van Grack, a prosecutor from Robert Mueller’s team who was assigned to the Flynn case, withdrew as counsel for the government.
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The Justice Department on Thursday told a federal judge that it wanted to drop its high-profile criminal case against Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser to President Donald Trump who pleaded guilty in 2017 as part of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
The abrupt reversal drew immediate praise from Trump and Flynn allies and adds grist to Democratic complaints that the president continues to interfere with DOJ prosecutions.
Flynn pleaded guilty in late 2017 to one count of lying to the FBI about his interactions with the Russian ambassador to the US during an interview tied to the bureau’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Federal prosecutors initially praised the former national security adviser as his case worked its way toward sentencing, noting that the retired lieutenant general had provided “substantial assistance” to investigators not only in the Russia inquiry but in separate investigations.
But Flynn changed course last summer by firing his legal team and adding a combative defence lawyer, Sidney Powell, who accused the government of prosecutorial misconduct and entrapment.
Powell claimed that the FBI had manipulated official records of Flynn’s January 2017 interview in which he had admitted to misleading investigators. The Justice Department pushed back on Powell’s accusations in a separate filing last year.
But the DOJ shifted course on Thursday with its filing notifying US District Judge Emmet Sullivan that it now favours dropping the case.
Timothy Shea, the interim Trump-appointed US attorney for the District of Columbia, said in a 20-page motion to Sullivan that 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 filling said the department did “not believe that the Government can prove either the relevant false statements or their materiality beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Shortly before the department filed its motion, Brandon Van Grack, a former prosecutor from Mueller’s team who remained on the Flynn case, told Sullivan he was withdrawing as the government counsel.
Late last month, the Justice Department turned over four pages of records to Flynn’s legal team showing how the FBI debated handling his interview in early 2017.
“If we’re seen as playing games, WH will be furious,” one page of the notes said. “Protect our institution by not playing games.”
There was also some deliberation within the bureau about how to phrase questions to Flynn during the interview.
“What is our goal? Truth/admission, or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” the notes said.
Intelligence veterans said the notes depicted the extraordinarily sensitive nature of an investigation into a newly inaugurated president’s highest-profile national security aide. But Trump and Flynn’s other defenders pointed to the documents as a smoking gun showing that the FBI tried to trap the former national security adviser into pleading guilty.
“I felt it was going to happen,” the president said on Thursday, referring to the Justice Department’s motion to drop the Flynn case. “He’s an innocent man, a great gentleman.”
The department’s move to abandon the Flynn case, which still requires Sullivan’s approval, came after Attorney General William Barr earlier this year tapped a prosecutor in the US attorney’s office in St. Louis to conduct an independent review of the Flynn case.
The Associated Press reported that the Trump-appointed prosecutor, Jeff Jensen, recently recommended dropping the case to Barr.
“Through the course of my review of General Flynn’s case, I concluded the proper and just course was to dismiss the case,” Jensen said in a statement. “I briefed Attorney General Barr on my findings, advised him on these conclusions, and he agreed.”
Democrats who have long been critical of Barr’s management of the Mueller probe found fault in the Flynn decision. House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler in a prepared statement called the decision “outrageous” and pledged to hold a hearing with the attorney general to cover the issue “as soon as possible.” The New York Democrat also said he’d call for a DOJ inspector general investigation.
“The integrity of our criminal justice system is at stake, and the American people deserve answers,” Nadler said.
Flynn’s lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On Twitter, one of the former Trump aide’s brothers, Joseph Flynn, welcomed the news. “HOLY S—!!!!!!!!!” he wrote.
Flynn had faced a maximum possible sentence of five years in prison for the felony false-statement charge, though federal prosecutors had urged Sullivan to impose a penalty ranging between no jail time and up to six months behind bars. The judge, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, has twice delayed Flynn’s sentencing, first so the former Trump aide could continue cooperating with the government and later after he changed his position to question the original prosecution.