Trump Pardons Michael Flynn, Who Pleaded Guilty To Lying About Russia Contact

Nov 25, 2020
Originally published on November 25, 2020 7:08 pm

Updated at 5:49 p.m. ET

President Trump has pardoned his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who spent years enmeshed in an often bizarre legal war with the government that sprang from the Russia investigation.

Trump announced the news Wednesday on Twitter as Americans prepared to observe the Thanksgiving holiday this week.

The pardon brings an end to a long-running legal odyssey for Flynn, who was the only member of the Trump administration to be charged as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador and then cooperated extensively with prosecutors. But he ultimately reversed course and accused the government of trying to frame him.

Flynn went so far as to withdraw his first plea of guilty and substitute a second plea of not guilty, even though he'd acknowledged the underlying conduct that was against the law and been close to receiving a sentence.

The pardon drew condemnations from critics who've said Trump's actions to help his friends interfere with the justice system. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., for example, who helped prosecute Trump at his impeachment, called the president's actions obviously corrupt.

Flynn, about an hour and a half ahead of Trump's announcement, tweeted a Bible verse alluding to a holy rescue.

Trump's action on Wednesday may open the door to possible clemency for other former advisers who were indicted as part of the Russia investigation, including Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman.

Justice Department not consulted

The Justice Department was not consulted about the Flynn pardon in the way it often takes part in the preparation of presidential pardons, a department official said on Wednesday. The official described the situation on the condition that the person not be identified.

The Justice Department did get a "heads-up" on Wednesday, the official said, and the person said that "this is obviously an appropriate use of the president's pardon power."

Justice Department leaders would have preferred, however, for Flynn's case to have been resolved in court, where federal Judge Emmet Sullivan still had not ruled on the government's request to abandon its prosecution.

Justice Department leaders were "confident in the likelihood of our success in the case," the official said Wednesday.

Longtime military spy boss

Flynn is a retired Army lieutenant general who once led the Defense Intelligence Agency.

He became a security and geopolitical consultant in private life and took tens of thousands of dollars in payments from Russian entities. In 2015, Russia's state-backed TV network RT paid him $45,000 to attend a dinner in Moscow, where he sat at the right arm of President Vladimir Putin.

Back in the United States, Flynn became a vocal supporter of Trump's outsider campaign in the 2016 presidential race. At the Republican National Convention that year, Flynn led the crowd in chants of "lock her up" about Trump's rival, Hillary Clinton.

When Trump took office in January 2017, Flynn was rewarded for his loyalty with the job of national security adviser, a post that put him in the White House at the president's side.

But questions already were swirling about Flynn's Russian contacts, including with Russia's then-ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. Flynn was forced to resign after less than a month on the job for allegedly misleading the vice president about his conversations with the Russian envoy.

Flynn was interviewed by the FBI in January 2017, just days after assuming his White House post.

Intelligence and law enforcement officials worried that the Russians' knowledge about the true facts of Flynn's discussion with Kislyak could open Flynn up to the prospect of coercion, given the contrast with his public statements at the time.

Flynn lied to the agents about his conversations with Kislyak, saying he didn't urge Moscow not to respond to sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Russia in retaliation for the Kremlin's election interference.

Legal odyssey

Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to making false statements to the FBI. He went on to cooperate extensively with Mueller's team, providing "substantial assistance" to the special counsel's investigation, according to court papers.

Before the Mueller investigation wrapped up, Flynn appeared in court in December 2018 for his sentencing. The Justice Department had said it would not object to Flynn receiving no prison time.

Flynn's defense team, however, tried to downplay his crimes despite his admissions and his guilty plea. That prompted sharp criticism from the presiding judge, Sullivan, who said it raised questions about whether Flynn truly accepted responsibility for his actions.

Sullivan postponed sentencing to allow Flynn to complete his cooperation, including testifying against his former business partner who was facing charges tied to foreign lobbying.

In the summer of 2019, Flynn dumped his legal team and brought on a new set of lawyers led by Sidney Powell, a Texas attorney and frequent critic on Fox News of the Mueller investigation.

After the shake-up, Flynn took a combative approach with the government. In one court filing after another, Flynn's counsel asserted his innocence and accused the government of misconduct, withholding exculpatory evidence and other wrongdoing.

Sullivan considered Flynn's claims and then, in a 92-page ruling, rejected them all.

Then, in January, Flynn filed to withdraw his guilty plea because of what he called "the government's bad faith, vindictiveness and breach of the plea agreement."

Prosecutors, meanwhile, repeatedly pointed out in their filings that Flynn twice pleaded guilty before the court to his offense. They also rejected his allegations of violating his plea agreement or misconduct.

But Flynn's allegations of government misconduct found a sympathetic audience in Trump, who along with his conservative allies declared Flynn a victim of an FBI gone rogue.

Those allegations dovetailed, of course, with the president's own claims that the Russia probe was a "witch hunt" and a "hoax" designed to delegitimize his presidency.

Ultimately, Attorney General William Barr ordered a review of Flynn's case, and the Justice Department moved in May to drop its prosecution of Flynn.

The White House alluded to its and Flynn's latter day framing of his case in a statement on Wednesday filled with overtones about the ostensible conspiracy within officialdom that Trump and allies argue was responsible for the Russia investigation.

The statement also included another personal message to Flynn and his family, wishing them a happy Thanksgiving.

Sullivan had declined to grant the Justice Department's request immediately to drop the case. Instead, the judge set up a process to examine the department's stated reasons.

Flynn's attorneys challenged Sullivan's actions to try to force him to dismiss the case.

Ironically, that effort may ultimately have drawn out the process so long that the only way to ensure Flynn was out of legal peril before Joe Biden's inauguration was to prompt Trump to pardon him.

NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.

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AILSA CHANG (HOST): President Trump has issued a pardon to his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Flynn had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and then recanted. This ends a years-long saga, which NPR's Ryan Lucas has been long following. And he joins us now.

Hey, Ryan.


CHANG: All right. So the president's pardon for Flynn just happened this afternoon. What do we know at this point?

LUCAS: Well, the president announced this on Twitter, as he is wont to do. He says in the tweet that it is a great honor to announce that he has granted a full pardon to Flynn. He sends his congratulations to Flynn and his family and says, quote, "I know you will now have a truly fantastic Thanksgiving." I will say this pardon is not a surprise. This is something that was widely expected. And Flynn's lawyer actually had even acknowledged in court this fall that she had actually indeed spoken with the president about a possible pardon.

CHANG: OK. Can you just give us a mini refresher course for a moment? It feels like this Flynn case has been going on and on forever. Remind us what Flynn was originally prosecuted for.

LUCAS: This has been a bit of a legal saga, no doubt. Flynn was the only member of the Trump administration, actually, who was charged as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. He pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador at the time, Sergey Kislyak. Those were conversations that took place during the transition period - so after Trump had been elected but before he took office. Flynn pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with investigators, and he did so extensively.

CHANG: Right. OK. So he cooperated with Mueller's team but has now been pardoned. But a federal judge in D.C. is still weighing his case, right? Did I get that right?

LUCAS: That's right. This has been a long and winding road to get to this point. Flynn was actually in court almost two years ago now for sentencing, but that was abruptly put off to allow Flynn to complete his cooperation on a couple of other cases. A few months after that, Flynn changed his lawyers - dumped his previous legal team, brought on a new legal team - and he completely changed his tune after that. He proclaimed his innocence and said that he was set up by the FBI, that he was entrapped. He even went so far as to try to withdraw his guilty plea.

But before all of that could play out, Attorney General William Barr moved to drop the department's case against Flynn. Barr said that Flynn never should have been prosecuted in the first place. The presiding judge, as you mentioned before, refused to drop this case immediately. He said that he wanted to take a closer look at the department's stated reasons for this. Ultimately, as of today, the judge still has not granted that motion to dismiss. He is still weighing what to do in that case.

Now, naturally, it's a moot point. The president has acted. He's taken political responsibility for this. And Flynn, of course, now has his pardon in hand.

CHANG: Right. Well, overall, how would you say this case has been handled by the Department of Justice?

LUCAS: This has been a difficult case for the Justice Department. It has been caught up, from the beginning, essentially, in the bitter political battle that we've seen take place in Washington. Flynn, the president and his allies portray Flynn here as a victim of the Justice Department, of the FBI, of what the president would call a witch hunt, a hoax. Meanwhile, the attorney general's decision, which was highly unusual to intervene in this case and to try to drop it after Flynn had pleaded guilty, caused an uproar. And critics said this looks a lot like a political favor to a friend of the president.

CHANG: Well, this is, of course, the first pardon that we have seen from President Trump since the election. Should we be anticipating many more?

LUCAS: This is the first of what we expect to be a number of pardons, yes. There are a number of people who the president is friends with who could expect a pardon. Some top names we're looking at - former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, the president's former political adviser Steve Bannon, who is facing federal charges in New York. There is also, of course, the possibility that the president could pardon his family preemptively and the possibility for the president to try to pardon himself before he leaves office.

CHANG: That is NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.

Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.