President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced his pardon of his former National Security advisor Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his Russian contacts. Trump himself had fired Flynn from the White House, ostensibly for misleading administration officials about the communications as well.
It is my Great Honor to announce that General Michael T. Flynn has been granted a Full Pardon. Congratulations to @GenFlynn and his wonderful family, I know you will now have a truly fantastic Thanksgiving!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 25, 2020
Before announcing the pardon on Twitter, Trump told Flynn’s lawyer Sidney Powell of his decision, Powell confirmed to TPM.
Flynn’s prosecution has been in turmoil for several months now. The Justice Department sought to dismiss Flynn’s case in May, but the judge presiding over the case sought to probe the circumstances of that dismissal request, rather than grant the request immediately.
The pardon marks a denouement to one of the most dramatic episodes of Justice Department politicization during the Trump era. While it always seemed plausible that Trump would ultimately pardon Flynn — as Flynn’s prosecution drove Trump’s baseless claims that the Russia probe was a witch hunt — how his Justice Department instead contorted itself in a gambit to clear Flynn of guilt instead prompted widespread concerns about the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
The DOJ’s maneuvers in the case under Attorney General Bill Barr also appeared designed to launder into public view selected documents from the start of the Russia probe, which Trump’s allies in the media in turn used to paint Trump the victim of a Deep State coup.
In a statement Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany leaned into that narrative, calling Flynn a “victim of partisan government officials engaged in a coordinated attempt to subvert the election of 2016.”
In fact, multiple reviews of the start of the Russia probe have backed the decision to launch it, and the Justice Department’s own insinuations that Flynn was the target of an anti-Trump plot have been undermined by other documents that it has filed in the case.
Flynn is the second key figure in the Russia probe to receive a reprieve from the President. Earlier this year, Trump granted a commutation to his longtime confidante Roger Stone, who was convicted by a jury last year of lying to Congress in its Russia investigation.
In a statement, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler called the pardon “undeserved, unprincipled, and one more stain on President Trump’s rapidly diminishing legacy.”
“This pardon is part of a pattern,” Nadler said. “We saw it before, in the Roger Stone case — where President Trump granted clemency to protect an individual who might have implicated the President in criminal misconduct. We may see it again before President Trump finally leaves office. These actions are an abuse of power and fundamentally undermine the rule of law.”
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff likewise saw Flynn’s pardon as part of a pattern of Trump abusing his power to “reward friends and protect those who covered up for him.”
Donald Trump has repeatedly abused the pardon power to reward friends and protect those who covered up for him.
This time he pardons Michael Flynn, who lied to hide his dealings with the Russians.
It’s no surprise that Trump would go out as he came in —
Crooked to the end.
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) November 25, 2020
Flynn’s false statements stemmed from a Jan. 2017 interview he gave the FBI. During the interview, he gave false and misleading statements about the communications he had with then-Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. In multiple conversations, in December 2016, Flynn had discussed with Kislyak sanctions the Obama administration was imposing on Russia for its interference in the 2016 election.
Flynn pleaded guilty in Dec. 2017, as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations, to the false statements — a plea he twice affirmed in court, first during his initial 2017 plea hearing and again in 2018, when he was initially scheduled to be sentenced.
As part of his agreement with Mueller, Flynn also admitted to unregistered lobbying he was doing on Turkey’s behalf while serving as a top advisor on the Trump campaign. While that conduct was not part of the formal charges Flynn pleaded to, it drew serious criticism, including from U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, the judge that is presiding over Flynn’s case.
At the aborted 2018 sentencing hearing, Sullivan said that Flynn “arguably sold” his “country out.” When it was clear from those comments — along with Sullivan’s frustration that Flynn’s sentencing memos soft pedaled his false statements to the FBI — that the judge was likely to not go along with the easy, incarceration-free sentence Mueller had recommended, Flynn asked to delay the sentencing, so he could continue to cooperate with prosecutors and earn that benefit for his final sentence.
But in the summer of 2019, Flynn fired the legal team that negotiated the plea deal and hired Powell, who had been attacking Mueller in media appearances. They took a hostile posture to the prosecutors that culminated in Flynn’s own indication to the court that he intended back out of the plea agreement, claiming that he had been entrapped by the agents. For several months, the DOJ continued to defend the prosecutions, but in May — in a move that prompted the Mueller probe veteran leading the prosecution, a career attorney, to withdraw from the case — it said it would be seeking a dismissal instead.
The reversal was viewed as the greatest example yet of Trump’s ability, via Attorney General Barr, to interfere with the Department’s prosecutions. Barr had been privately asked to dismiss the case by Powell in 2019.
In her White House statement, McEnany asserted that the Department had “firmly concluded that the charges against General Flynn should be dropped.”
“This Full Pardon achieves that objective, finally bringing to an end the relentless, partisan pursuit of an innocent man,” her statement said.
The DOJ’s attempt to whitewash Flynn of his guilty plea hit a roadblock earlier this year when Sullivan did not immediately drop the case, and instead signaled he intended to air out in public the ham-handedness of the DOJ’s change of course.
The summer was marked by a protracted court fight over whether Sullivan was obligated to automatically drop the case, or if he could invite so-called friends-of-the-court to file briefings opposing the dismissal.
Sullivan ultimately got the OK from the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to move forward with his consideration of the dismissal request and the court also OKed Sullivan’s move to appoint a retired federal judge, John Gleeson, as a friend of the court to oppose that request.
The judge’s last major move in the case was to host a hearing on Sept. 29. After the hearing, the judge ordered the DOJ to explain apparent alterations to the documents it filed and to explain its rationale for wanting the case dropped. The Justice Department claimed the alterations were inadvertent.
At the hearing, Gleeson pointed to the President’s pardon power as a reason why the DOJ should not be allowed to use the judiciary to take Flynn “off the hook” instead.
“If the executive wants to take Michael Flynn off the hook, it could pardon him,” Gleeson said. “Because if it does that, it doesn’t bind up this judge, this court in the unseemly desire to scuttle the case because the defendant is a friend of the President’s.”
Powell, Flynn’s lawyer, has been assisting Trump’s flailing efforts to overturn his defeat in the 2020 election — though the Trump campaign has tried to distance itself from her more sensational conspiracy theories about a supposedly rigged election. Trump’s effort to reverse the results continues nonetheless, and he’s explicitly called for legislators in states that went for Biden to award him presidential electors instead.
McEnany’s statement, seemingly without any sense of irony, said it was the 2016 election in which an outgoing President and his allies tried to subvert the will of the people.
“After the 2016 election, individuals within the outgoing administration refused to accept the choice the American people had made at the ballot box and worked to undermine the peaceful transition of power,” she said.
This post has been updated.