A federal judge has put the justice department’s decision to dismiss a criminal case against Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, on hold – opening the door for legal experts and other outside parties to oppose the administration’s motion to exonerate Flynn of lying to the FBI.
Judge Emmet Sullivan’s order is the latest development in the high-profile case, which has led critics, including Barack Obama and hundreds of former FBI and justice department officials, to question whether William Barr, the attorney general, was orchestrating favors for Trump.
Flynn, a retired general and a close Trump ally, pleaded guilty to a felony charge amid the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 US election. The former administration official was charged with lying to the FBI about conversations with the Russian ambassador to the US during the presidential transition period. In exchange for leniency, Flynn cooperated with Mueller’s investigation as part of his plea agreement.
But Flynn sought to change his plea while awaiting sentencing, as the president floated the idea of a pardon.
The justice department said last week that the FBI had had no basis to question him, and federal prosecutors asked Sullivan to throw out their case against Flynn. None of the line prosecutors supervising the case signed the motion and one withdrew from the case.
When Flynn was forced from the White House, Vice-President Mike Pence said he was disappointed the national security adviser had misled him about his talks with the Russian ambassador. President Donald Trump called the deception unacceptable.
Now Pence says he would welcome Flynn back to the administration, calling him a “patriot”, as Trump pronounces him exonerated.
And the DoJ’s move to dismiss the criminal case against Flynn marks another step in his transformation, in the eyes of Trump and his allies, from rogue adviser to victim of runaway law enforcement.
The dismissal rewrites the narrative of the case that Trump’s own justice department had advanced for the last three years in a way that former law enforcement officials say downplays the legitimate national security concerns they believe Flynn posed and the consequences of the lies he pleaded guilty to telling.
It’s been swept up in a broader push by Trump and his Republican allies to reframe the Russia investigation as a “deep state” plot to sabotage his administration, setting the stage for a fresh onslaught of election year attacks on past and present Democratic officials and law enforcement leaders.
“His goal is that by the end of this, you’re just not really sure what happened and at some gut level enough Americans say, ‘It’s kind of messy,’” said the Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer.
He has repeatedly called Flynn “exonerated” and pushed the development as evidence of what he deemed “Obamagate”, an allegation the previous administration tried to undermine him during the presidential transition.
Though lawyers for Flynn asked Sullivan to immediately toss out the charges, following the DoJ’s move, Sullivan said he wanted to hear more arguments. “Given the posture of the case,” he said, he expected that many outside parties would want to weigh in.
Sullivan has questioned Flynn in court before. During a 2018 hearing, he rejected a motion supported by the administration for probation, telling Flynn: “Arguably, you sold your country out.”
Flynn’s defense team said Sullivan’s order on Tuesday was prompted by a filing from a group that called itself “Watergate prosecutors” that questioned the justice department’s actions and suggested that political influence was at play.
Disputing the order, Flynn’s defense lawyer Sidney Powell and her co-counsel wrote in a court filing: “There is no place for third parties to meddle in the dispute, and certainly not to usurp the role of the government’s counsel.
“This travesty of justice has already consumed three or more years of an innocent man’s life – and that of his entire family,” Powell wrote. “No further delay should be tolerated.”
In a leaked web talk, Obama reportedly said the “rule of law is at risk” because the justice department dropped charges against Flynn. The chair of the House judiciary committee, Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, called the decision “outrageous” and said he intended to call Barr to testify about the handling of the case.
“We do not believe this case should have been brought, we are correcting that and we certainly hope that in the interest of true justice, that the judge ultimately agrees and drops the case against Gen Flynn,” said Kerri Kupec, a justice department spokeswoman, in an interview Fox News on Tuesday evening.
The justice department did not immediately respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.
Trump has increasingly lashed out in the year since Robert Mueller’s report did not exonerate the president but also did not accuse him of a crime or allege a criminal conspiracy between his campaign and Russia.
The acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, declassified a list of names of Obama officials who reportedly asked for Flynn’s identity to be un-redacted in intelligence documents.
Republicans have generated a “thick fog of propaganda,” said the Democratic representative Jamie Raskin.
“Trump and his enablers in Congress have a strategy of never admitting anything and always going on the attack,” he said.
Agencies contributed reporting