WASHINGTON: The US Justice Department on Thursday abruptly asked a judge to drop criminal charges against Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn following mounting pressure from the Republican president and his political allies on the right.
The move drew furious criticism from congressional Democrats and others who accused the department and Attorney General William Barr of politicizing the U.S. criminal justice system by bending to Trump’s wishes and improperly protecting his friends and associates in criminal cases.
Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who served as an adviser to Trump during the 2016 campaign, had been seeking to withdraw his 2017 guilty plea in which he admitted to lying to the FBI about his interactions with Russia’s US ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the weeks before Trump took office.
The Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss the charges with U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who has presided over the case and has a reputation for fierce independence. Judges generally grant such motions, but Sullivan could demand answers from the department about its reversal or even deny the motion and sentence Flynn, a less likely scenario.
Sullivan at a 2018 hearing expressed “disgust” and “disdain” toward Flynn’s criminal offense, saying: “Arguably, you sold your country out.”
Trump, who had publicly attacked the case against Flynn and has frequently castigated the FBI, said he was “very happy” for his former aide, adding: “Yes, he was a great warrior, and he still is a great warrior. Now in my book he’s an even greater warrior.” Trump said in March he was considering a full pardon and accused the FBI and Justice Department of having “destroyed” Flynn’s life and that of his family.
Flynn was one of several former Trump aides charged under former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that detailed Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election to boost Trump’s candidacy and contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Trump’s longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone and his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort both were convicted and sentenced to multi-year prison terms.
The Justice Department said in its filing it was no longer persuaded that the FBI’s Jan. 24, 2017 Flynn interview that underpinned the charges was conducted with a “legitimate investigative basis” and did not think his statements were “material even if untrue.”
“A crime has not been established here. They did not have the basis for a counterintelligence investigation against Flynn at that stage,” Barr said in a CBS interview. Asked about the fact that Flynn lied to investigators, Barr said: “Well, people sometimes plead to things that turn out not to be crimes.”
In a filing, Flynn’s lawyers agreed with the department’s motion to dismiss the charges.
It marked the latest instance of the department under Barr, a Trump political loyalist, changing course under public pressure from the president to go light on one of his allies. In February, Barr and other senior department officials abandoned a tough sentencing recommendation by their own career prosecutors in Stone’s case after Trump publicly lashed out at the prosecution team. The prosecutors quit the case in protest.
Shortly before the Flynn motion was filed on Thursday, career prosecutor Brandon Van Grack withdrew from the case and other related legal matters. He remains a Justice Department employee, a department spokeswoman said.