WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced he had pardoned his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, ending a three-year legal saga that included Flynn’s guilty plea for lying to the FBI, his later effort to withdraw that plea and then a controversial decision by Attorney General William Barr to try to drop the case altogether.
Trump’s move marks a full embrace of the retired general he had ousted from the White House after only 22 days on the job – and a final salvo against the Russia investigation that shadowed the first half of his term in office.
The pardon he granted Flynn, an early backer of his 2016 White House bid, underlines how Trump has used his clemency power to benefit allies and well-connected offenders.White House officials said Trump has been considering other pardons before leaving office, including possibly other former aides who were convicted of crimes as part of the special counsel probe of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
Flynn pleaded guilty to a felony in December 2017, admitting that he had misled investigators about details of his conversations with the Russian ambassador during Trump’s presidential transition.
His plea was one of the first major courtroom victories for special counsel Robert Mueller III, who had been appointed seven months earlier.
The special counsel probe ultimately did not establish the Trump campaign had entered into a criminal conspiracy with the Kremlin. But the investigation documented how Russia interfered in the 2016 race to benefit Trump, and how Trump’s campaign welcomed the assistance.
Flynn was one of six Trump associates to be convicted or charged with crimes before the probe ended in 2019. The president and his allies have repeatedly attacked Flynn’s prosecution as overzealous and flawed in their efforts to discredit the special counsel inquiry.
This spring, Barr and the Justice Department suddenly reversed course, declaring that prosecutors should not have brought the case against Flynn and seeking to have it dismissed. That request has been pending before a federal judge, who has been reviewing the case.
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted, “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!”
Not long before Trump announced the pardon publicly, Flynn tweeted an image of the American flag and the words “Jeremiah 1:19,” a reference to a Bible verse in which God says, “They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you.”
Democrats responded to the long-anticipated pardon with outrage. In a lengthy statement, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Flynn had chosen “loyalty to Trump over loyalty to his country” and that Trump’s decision was intended to insulate himself from criminal investigation. He called the move a “corruption of the Framer’s intent” in giving the president broad pardon powers.
“It’s no surprise that Trump would go out just as he came in – crooked to the end,” Schiff said.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., called the pardon “undeserved, unprincipled, and one more stain on President Trump’s rapidly diminishing legacy.”
Through a representative, Mueller declined to comment.
But Andrew Weissmann, a former member of the special counsel team, tweeted, “Trump’s abuse of the pardon power undermines the crown jewel of our democracy: the rule of law.”
Trump told one adviser this week that Flynn had considerable support from the conservative community, and that his pardon would be well received among his supporters, according to the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private conversation.
Flynn had also developed close ties with Jenna Ellis, one of the president’s legal advisers, who is pushing his false allegations of fraud in this month’s election.
Last week, the night before she appeared at a news conference at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee in Washington to discuss the president’s claims about the election, Ellis posted a photograph on Twitter of herself with Flynn and the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. She has discussed Flynn’s case with Trump, according to the person.
Chief of Staff Mark Meadows was an advocate for the Flynn pardon, and has often commiserated with the president about how unfair the Mueller investigation was to Flynn and others.
Flynn is the second Trump associate caught up in the Mueller probe to benefit from the president’s power to grant clemency. In July, Trump commuted the sentence of his former adviser, Roger Stone, who had been convicted of lying to Congress about his efforts to secure information from WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign.
Trump has largely eschewed the traditional pardon process, in which people convicted of crimes formally apply for White House consideration and have their applications reviewed by Justice Department lawyers.
Instead, the president has taken recommendations from friends, TV hosts and White House advisers, such as son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has taken a large role in some of the past decisions.
It is unclear whether Trump might seek to preemptively pardon himself or any of his family members, who have told others they expect to face ongoing investigations after Trump leaves office.
After his guilty plea in late 2017, Flynn initially cooperated with special counsel prosecutors pursuing other cases, delaying his sentencing.
But once Mueller’s team disbanded, Flynn hired new lawyers – including attorney Sidney Powell, who this fall has been part of a team of Trump legal advisers working to overturn the November election results by promoting baseless conspiracy theories about fraud.
In the Flynn case, Powell argued that Flynn had been entrapped during his FBI interview, conducted at the White House four days after Trump took office. She maintained that he had never intended to lie and that key documents had been withheld from him by prosecutors.
Prosecutors at first continued to pursue the case, and a federal judge rejected several of Flynn’s new arguments.
But in May, acting on instructions from Barr, the Justice Department reversed course and said a new review of the case’s origins led prosecutors to conclude that Flynn’s lies could not be proved in court. Because of that, the department said, they were not material to an FBI investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election that was underway at the time.
The stunning turnaround prompted fears of politicization at the Justice Department. Barr insisted that a review of the case concluded it should be dismissed.
Rather than immediately accept that, however, District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, who has overseen the case, signaled that he wished to explore whether the Justice Department had acted properly and if Flynn was being given special treatment because he is an ally of the president.
Flynn objected to Sullivan’s handling of the case, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled the judge did not have to immediately grant the Justice Department’s request to drop the matter.
In September, Powell told Sullivan that she had personally briefed Trump on Flynn’s case and had asked the president not to pardon his former national security adviser.
But on Wednesday, Powell said the pardon was appropriate. “It was high time that he be exonerated of all these charges,” she said on Fox Business. “It was truly a pardon of innocence.”
Trump’s pardon shortcuts Sullivan’s ongoing review. The Justice Department will no longer be able to pursue charges against Flynn for lying to the FBI, even after President-elect Joe Biden and his new attorney general take over next year.
The Supreme Court has ruled that accepting a pardon is akin to an admission of guilt – though some presidents and governors have used their pardon powers to help people who maintained their innocence.
A Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the department was not consulted in advance of the pardon but was given a “head’s up” on Wednesday. The official said the department would have preferred to see if Sullivan would act, and for the matter to be resolved in court.
“We were confident in the likelihood of our success in the case,” the official said. They said, however, the move was “obviously an appropriate use of the president’s pardon power.”
Flynn, now 61, was a highly regarded military intelligence officer who served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before being named director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama.
But he was pushed out of that job amid concerns about his leadership skills, and a penchant for taking positions on matters related to Iran and militant Islam not supported by underlying intelligence. Associates of Flynn said he was so embittered by his treatment that he turned against Obama, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and others he blamed for his professional demise.
In 2016, he lent Trump’s campaign legitimacyat a time when no other established national security official role was willing to endorse the former reality TV star or advise him on foreign policy issues.
As a campaign adviser, he led crowds in chants of “Lock Her Up” about Clinton and, in recent years, as his legal woes mounted, Flynn has made statements and postings on Twitter that suggest he has embraced online conspiracy claims espoused by QAnon and other sources.
After Trump was elected, he designated Flynn to serve as his national security adviser. In that role, Flynn conducted a series of meetings and phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump was inaugurated.
Among the topics the two discussed were new sanctions that were imposed on Russia by Obama on Dec. 29, 2016, in response to Russia’s interference in the election. Declassified transcripts of the call show that Flynn and Kislyak spoke that day, and Flynn asked that Russia not respond aggressively to Obama’s move or escalate the conflict.
The next day, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he would take no action in reaction to the new sanctions, flummoxing officials in Washington.
The reason for the move, however, was made clear in a phone call from Kislyak to Flynn on Dec. 31, in which the Russian envoy told Flynn his views had been “taken into account” at the Kremlin and were the reason for the muted Russian reaction.
When Flynn was asked 24 days later by two FBI agents whether he discussed the sanctions with Kislyak, he told the agents that he did not remember doing so. In pleading guilty, he told the court he knew this was not true.
More recently, he told the court he had not intended to lie.
After a Washington Post columnist reported in January 2017 that Flynn had spoken to Kislyak on the day the sanctions were announced, Vice President Pence and other officials publicly said they had been assured by Flynn that he had not discussed the topic with the Russian ambassador.
Justice Department officials warned the White House that Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI. After that, Flynn acknowledged privately to Trump that he may have discussed sanctions with Kislyak.
Trump’s top aides concluded they did not think Flynn could have forgotten the conversation and concluded he had lied. Flynn was then forced to resign from his post.
Why Flynn chose to lie repeatedly about his contacts with Kislyak is one of the lingering mysteries of the Russia investigation. Many legal experts believe that if had he been truthful, he likely would not have faced charges or lost his job.
In pleading guilty, Flynn also told the court that he had acted as a foreign agent of the government of Turkey while working as a consultant during the 2016 presidential campaign – and falsely filed paperwork with the Justice Department in March 2017 indicating that he had not known whether Turkey would benefit from the work or not. Flynn later denied knowingly making false statements about his Turkey work.
His lies to the FBI – as well as his undisclosed work for Turkey – prompted Sullivan to lecture the retired general at a dramatic hearing not long after he pleaded guilty, telling him that his crime was a “very serious offense.”
The judge pointed to the American flag that sat on the bench next to him and told the retired military officer: “Arguably, you sold your country out.”
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The Washington Post’s Greg Miller, Matt Zapotosky, Devlin Barrett, Aaron Schaffer, Carol D. Leonnig and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.