In a surprise, the Justice Department on Thursday moved to drop its two-plus-year-old prosecution of former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn had been awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to lying to investigators about his calls in late 2016 with Russia’s ambassador, and he later reaffirmed to a judge that he had knowingly lied. But Trump’s allies in recent days seized upon documents released by Flynn’s legal team that showed an FBI official musing about whether investigators had the goal of getting Flynn to lie.
The judge, Emmet G. Sullivan, still has to make a decision about whether to grant the motion. But the move could notably spare Trump a difficult political decision about whether to pardon Flynn on the eve of the 2020 election.
The move also coincided with the abrupt withdrawal from the case of the lead Justice Department lawyer. The lawyer, Brandon L. Van Grack, had been a part of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team, which brought the case against Flynn.
The reasons for Van Grack’s withdrawal notice weren’t immediately clear, but it carries a strong parallel to the other recent case in which Barr’s Justice Department reversed course in favor of a Trump ally — and after Trump publicly suggested it do so. Back then, it was the prosecution of longtime Trump political adviser Roger Stone, in which the Justice Department abruptly watered down its initially tougher sentencing recommendation.
Trump had tweeted about the allegedly unfair recommendation earlier in the day.
The night before, he also retweeted a suggestion that it was too tough.
And Trump had also defended Stone repeatedly in the months prior.
After the Justice Department’s reversal on Feb. 11, all four career prosecutors handling the case, including two from Mueller’s team, withdrew from it, and one left the Justice Department entirely. Officials described disagreements about the sentencing recommendation and said the prosecutors’ superiors had been blindsided by it. But the withdrawals reinforced the turmoil within the Justice Department over the potential politicization of what are supposed to be independent prosecutions that happen to involve Trump and his allies. And lurking behind it all was a series of Trump-friendly actions Barr had taken, including, most notably, in the aftermath of the Mueller-led Russia investigation.
Barr came to acknowledge the problem — with the appearance, at the very least — of Trump’s comments preceding such Justice Department action. And he took the highly unusual step of publicly urging the president to knock it off.
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr said in an ABC News interview shortly after the Stone reversal. He added that Trump’s tweets about such situations “make it impossible for me to do my job.”
Reports indicate he had even talked about resigning over the situation.
But Trump didn’t, in fact, stop tweeting about Justice Department matters or even those involving his own allies.
He has since retweeted lots of suggestions that Flynn had been unjustly targeted and also said it in his own words as recently as last week.
“What happened to General Michael Flynn, a war hero, should never be allowed to happen to a citizen of the United States again!” Trump tweeted April 30, after the new documents came to light.
He said the same day that “General Flynn was treated like nobody should — and I’m not talking about generals; I’m saying like nobody in this country should be treated.”
He added the next day in an interview, “It’s a disgrace what happened to General Flynn. It’s a — it was a setup from Day One.”
The documents indicate that FBI officials believed they had damning evidence against Flynn, in the form of transcripts of his calls with the Russian ambassador. Notes indicate they were deciding whether to allow him to lie as he had done previously to the White House — and which Trump himself has acknowledged — or to present Flynn with that sensitive evidence.
Regardless of whether that approach was the correct one and whether the prosecution was appropriate, what’s clear is that despite his attorney general’s three-month-old exhortation that Trump should stop weighing in on such situations, Trump continued to do so — and now he has gotten yet another outcome that will meet with his express approval.
Barr is again stepping forward to defend taking actions on Trump allies that align with Trump’s own desires. He tells CBS News in a new interview, “I want to make sure that we restore confidence in the system. There’s only one standard of justice. And I believe that … justice in this case requires dismissing the charges against General Flynn.”
But Barr’s comments seem to very publicly acknowledge how problematic this all looks — again.