Trump on Wednesday, November 25, 2020, announced he had pardoned his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, ending a three-year legal saga that saw Flynn seek to withdraw a guilty plea for lying to the FBI and a controversial reversal by the Justice Department on his case.
Flynn pleaded guilty to a felony in December 2017, admitting that he had misled investigators about details of his conversations with the Russian ambassador during Trump’s presidential transition.
His plea was one of the first major courtroom victories for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who had been appointed seven months earlier.
But this spring, Attorney General William P. Barr and the Justice Department declared that prosecutors should not have brought the case against him and sought to have it dismissed. That request has been pending before a federal judge, who has been reviewing the case.
Trump’s pardon of Flynn marks a full embrace of the retired general he had ousted from the White House after only 22 days on the job — and a final salvo against the Russia investigation that shadowed the first half of his term in office.
The president and his allies have touted Flynn’s cause in their efforts to discredit the special counsel inquiry into whether individuals associated with Trump’s campaign cooperated with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted, “It is my Great Honor to announce that General Michael T. Flynn has been granted a Full Pardon. Congratulations to @GenFlynn and his wonderful family, I know you will now have a truly fantastic Thanksgiving!”
Flynn is the second Trump associate caught up in the Mueller probe to benefit from the president’s power to grant clemency. In July, Trump commuted the sentence of his former adviser, Roger Stone, who had been convicted of lying to Congress about his efforts to secure information from WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign.
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After his guilty plea in late 2017, Flynn initially cooperated with special counsel prosecutors pursuing other cases, delaying his sentencing.
But once Mueller’s team disbanded, Flynn hired new lawyers — included attorney Sidney Powell, who this fall was briefly part of a team of Trump legal advisers working to overturn the November election results by promoting baseless conspiracy theories about fraud.
In the Flynn case, Powell argued that Flynn had been entrapped during his FBI interview, conducted at the White House four days after Trump took office. She maintained that he had never intended to lie and that key documents had been withheld from him by prosecutors.
Prosecutors at first continued to pursue the case, and a federal judge rejected several of Flynn’s new arguments.
But in May, acting on instructions from Barr, the Justice Department reversed course and said a new review of the case’s origins led prosecutors to conclude that Flynn’s lies could not be proved in court. Because of that, the department said, they were not material to an FBI investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election that was underway at the time.
The stunning turnaround prompted fears of politicization at the Justice Department. Barr insisted that a review of the case concluded it should be dismissed.
Rather than immediately accept that, however, District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who has overseen the case, signaled that he wished to explore whether the Justice Department had acted properly and if Flynn was being given special treatment because he is an ally of the president.
Flynn objected to Sullivan’s handling of the case, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled the judge did not have to immediately grant the Justice Department’s request to drop the matter.
In September, Powell told Sullivan that she had personally briefed Trump on Flynn’s case and had asked the president not to pardon his former national security adviser.
After the hearing, Powell said that Flynn “is entitled to a public exoneration by the court. If the system works right, the wrongful prosecution will be dismissed with prejudice. No pardon should be needed. General Flynn is innocent.”
Trump’s pardon shortcuts Sullivan’s ongoing review. The Justice Department will no longer be able to pursue charges against Flynn for lying to the FBI, even after President-elect Joe Biden and his new attorney general take over next year.
An intelligence expert who served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Flynn, 61, was a prominent adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, famously leading crowds in chanting “lock her up” regarding Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
After Trump was elected, he designated Flynn to serve as his national security adviser. In that role, Flynn conducted a series of meetings and phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump took office.
Among the topics the two discussed were new sanctions that were imposed on Russia by President Barack Obama on Dec. 29, 2016, in response to Russia’s interference in the election. Declassified transcripts of the call show that Flynn and Kislyak spoke that day, and Flynn asked that Russia not respond aggressively to Obama’s move or escalate the conflict.
The next day, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he would take no action in reaction to the new sanctions, flummoxing officials in Washington.
The reason for the move, however, was made clear in a phone call from Kislyak to Flynn on Dec. 31, in which the Russian envoy told Flynn his views had been “taken into account” at the Kremlin and were the reason for the muted Russian reaction.
When Flynn was asked 24 days later by two FBI agents whether he discussed the sanctions with Kislyak, he told the agents that he did not remember doing so. In pleading guilty, he told the court he knew this was not true.
More recently, he told the court he had not intended to lie.
After a Washington Post columnist reported in January 2017 that Flynn had spoken to Kislyak on the day the sanctions were announced, Vice President Pence and other officials publicly said they had been assured by Flynn that he had not discussed the topic with the Russian ambassador.
Justice Department officials warned the White House that Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI. After that, Flynn acknowledged privately to Trump that he may have discussed sanctions with Kislyak.
Trump’s top aides concluded they did not think Flynn could have forgotten the conversation and concluded he had lied. Flynn was then forced to resign from his post.