WASHINGTON (AP) – The Justice Department said on Thursday it is ending the criminal case against President Donald Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, dropping an accusation that has become a rallying cry for Trump and his supporters when attacking the FBI investigation in Russia.
The move is an impressive reversal to one of the signature cases presented by special attorney Robert Mueller. Although prosecutors in the past three years have maintained that Flynn lied to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in an interview in January 2017. Flynn himself admitted this and became one of Mueller's top co-workers while investigating ties between the Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.
In court documents filed on Thursday, the Justice Department said it was withdrawing the case "after a thoughtful analysis of all the facts and circumstances of the case, including recently discovered and disclosed information". The documents were obtained by the Associated Press.
The Justice Department said it concluded that Flynn's FBI interview was "unrelated and unjustified by the FBI's counterintelligence investigation against Flynn" and that the January 24, 2017 interview was "conducted without any legitimate basis for investigation".
The US attorney reviewing the Flynn case, Jeff Jensen, recommended the move to Attorney General William Barr last week and formalized the recommendation in a document this week.
"In the course of my analysis of General Flynn's case, I have concluded the correct and fair way to end the case," said Jensen in a statement. "I informed Attorney General Barr about my findings, advised him on these findings and he agreed."
It is certain that the decision will be taken by Trump, who tweeted tirelessly about the case and last week declared Flynn "exonerated" and energized the supporters who took the retired Army lieutenant general as a celebrated cause. But it could also raise Democratic concerns that Attorney General William Barr is overly loyal to the president and could be a distraction to a justice department that has been trying to focus on crimes stemming from the coronavirus for months.
The Justice Department's move comes amid an internal review of the handling of the case and an aggressive effort by Flynn's lawyers to challenge the basis of the charge. Lawyers recently cited the FBI emails and notes released last week to claim that Flynn was cheated when agents interviewed him in the days of the White House after Trump's inauguration. Although none of the documents appeared to undermine the central claim that Flynn had lied to the FBI, Trump last week declared him "exonerated"
The decision is the latest dramatic change in a case of years full of twists and turns. In the past few months, his lawyers have made a series of allegations about the FBI's actions and asked to drop his guilt allegation. A judge rejected most of the complaints and did not rule on others, including an attempt to revoke the request.
The decision comes when Barr increasingly challenges Russia's investigation, saying in a television interview last month that it was started "without any basis". In February, he overturned a prosecutors' decision in the Roger Stone case in favor of a more lenient recommended sentence for Trump's longtime friend.
Earlier this year, he appointed Jensen of St. Louis to investigate the handling of Flynn's case. As part of that process, the Justice Department produced a series of emails and notes for Flynn's lawyers, including a handwritten note from a senior FBI official who mapped internal deliberations about the purpose of Flynn's interview: "What is the our goal? truth / admission or making you lie so we can sue or fire you? the employee wrote.
Other documents show that the FBI had been prepared weeks before his interview with Flynn to suspend his investigation into whether he was acting under the direction of Russia. Later that month, however, as the White House insisted that Flynn had never discussed sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, FBI officials were alarmed by Flynn's conversations with the diplomat and what he had communicated to the White House. The investigation remained open and agents visited him at the White House on January 24, 2017.
Justice Department officials visited the White House two days later to warn officials that they feared Flynn was compromised and vulnerable to blackmail by Russia because of his account of what was said in the call. White House officials waited several weeks to remove him from office, saying they concluded that Flynn had lied to them.
Flynn pleaded guilty in December, becoming one of the first aides to the president to admit guilt in Mueller's investigation. He acknowledged that he lied about his talks with Kislyak, in which he urged Russia not to retaliate against the United States for sanctions imposed by the Obama administration for electoral interference.
He provided such extensive cooperation that prosecutors said he was entitled to a probation sentence instead of imprisonment.
As it turned out, that hearing was abruptly interrupted after Flynn, facing a severe rebuke from US District Judge Emmet Sullivan, asked to be able to continue to cooperate and gain credit for a more lenient sentence.
Flynn's suspicions about the case were already on display when his lawyers then noted in his sentencing memo that the FBI had not warned him that it was against the law to lie when they interviewed him at the White House in January 2017.
He has since hired new lawyers – including Sidney Powell, a conservative commentator and outspoken critic of Mueller's investigation – who have taken a much more conflicted stance with the government. The lawyers accused prosecutors of withholding documents and evidence that they considered favorable to the case and repeatedly noted that one of the two agents who interviewed Flynn was fired from the FBI for sending derogatory text messages about Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.