WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday abruptly sought to drop the criminal charges against President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, following mounting pressure from Trump’s political allies on the right.
The move comes as Flynn has been seeking to withdraw his 2017 guilty plea in which he admitted to lying to the FBI about interactions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak in the weeks before Trump took office.
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Flynn was one of several former Trump aides to plead guilty or be convicted at trial in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that detailed Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election to boost Trump’s candidacy as well as numerous contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
The sudden about-face is likely to raise new questions among Trump’s critics about the Justice Department’s interventions under Attorney General William Barr into high-profile criminal cases involving the president’s political allies.
Trump, in reacting to the Justice Department’s decision on Thursday, said he was very happy for Flynn.
The decision to drop the charges comes less than three months after Barr named Jeffrey Jensen, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, to review the Justice Department’s handling of the case. In a statement, Jensen said he had "concluded the proper and just course was to dismiss the case" and he had briefed Barr on these conclusions.
Trump fired Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who served as an adviser to the president during the 2016 campaign, as national security adviser after it emerged that Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence and the FBI about his dealings Kislyak.
The president in March said he was strongly considering a full pardon for Flynn. He said the FBI and Justice Department had "destroyed" Flynn’s life and that of his family, and cited an unspecified report that they had lost records related to Flynn.
Flynn was supposed to help cooperate with prosecutors as part of his plea deal. But he later switched lawyers and tactics, arguing that prosecutors in the case had tricked him into lying about his December 2016 conversations with Kislyak.
The Justice Department had repeatedly denied allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, and U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan rejected all of Flynn’s claims in December.
The mounting pressure from Trump allies to drop the Flynn case intensified last week after partially redacted documents turned over to Flynn’s defense and then made public in the court record showed more about the FBI’s thinking ahead of its interview with Flynn that prompted the criminal charges.
In them, an unidentified FBI agent wrote: "What is our goal? Truth/admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?"
Flynn’s allies have argued that those documents bolstered his argument that the FBI was out to get him.
The Justice Department, in its filing, seemed to agree that the new documents undercut the criminal case against Flynn.
"The government has concluded that the interview of Mr. Flynn was untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Flynn – a no longer justifiably predicated investigation," the Justice Department wrote in its filing on Thursday.
Federal prosecutors had asked the judge in January to sentence Flynn to up to six months in prison, arguing in a court filing that "the defendant has not learned his lesson. He has behaved as though the law does not apply to him, and as if there are no consequences for his actions."
His sentencing has been deferred several times.
Flynn also served as head of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency but he was forced out in 2014 in part due to his management style and opinions on how to combat Islamist militancy.
He joined the Trump 2016 election campaign and at the Republican National Convention that year he led supporters in chants of "Lock her up," in reference to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Other former Trump aides were convicted of federal crimes following the Russia inquiry. Stone was sentenced on Feb. 20 to three years and four months in prison for obstruction of justice, witness tampering and lying to lawmakers investigating the Russian election interference.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was sentenced last year to 3-1/2 years in prison after being convicted of unlawful lobbying and witness tampering, which combined with a sentence in a related case equaled a term of more than seven years behind bars.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Will Dunham)