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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced that he had pardoned his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, ending a three-year legal saga that saw Flynn seek to withdraw a guilty plea for lying to the FBI and a controversial reversal by the Justice Department on his case.
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, who had been appointed seven months earlier.
But this spring, Attorney General William Barr and the Justice Department declared that prosecutors should not have filed the case against him and sought to have it dismissed. That request has been pending before a federal judge, who has been reviewing the case.
Trump’s pardon of Flynn marks a full embrace of the retired general he ousted from the White House after only 22 days on the job.
The president and his allies have touted Flynn’s cause in their efforts to discredit the special counsel inquiry into whether individuals associated with Trump’s campaign cooperated with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
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!”
House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler said the pardon was undeserved and unprincipled.
“The President’s enablers have constructed an elaborate narrative in which Trump and Flynn are victims and the Constitution is subject to the whims of the president,” the Democratic congressman said in a statement. “Americans soundly rejected this nonsense when they voted out President Trump.”
Flynn is the second Trump associate convicted in the Russia probe to be granted clemency by the president. Trump commuted the sentence of longtime confidant Roger Stone just days before Stone was to report to prison. Stone had been convicted of lying to Congress about his efforts to secure information from WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign.
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 was briefly part of a team of Trump legal advisers working to overturn the November election results by promoting 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 turnaround prompted fears of politicization at the Justice Department. Barr insisted that a review of the case concluded that it should be dismissed.
Rather than immediately accept that, however, District Judge Emmet G. 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 D.C. Circuit ruled that 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.
After the hearing, Powell said Flynn “is entitled to a public exoneration by the court. If the system works right, the wrongful prosecution will be dismissed with prejudice. No pardon should be needed. General Flynn is innocent.”
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.
CONTACT WITH KISLYAK
An intelligence expert who served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Flynn, 61, was a prominent adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016.
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 took office.
Among the topics the two discussed were new sanctions that were imposed on Russia by President Barack 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 Mike 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 that they did not think Flynn could have forgotten the conversation and concluded that he had lied. Flynn was then forced to resign from his post.
The White House is weighing a wave of pardons and commutations by Trump in his final weeks in office.
Among those hoping for pardons are two former Trump campaign advisers, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos, who like Flynn, were convicted in cases stemming from the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
Alan Dershowitz, the law professor who represented Trump during his impeachment trial, is considering seeking clemency for two of his clients — a New Jersey man serving more than 20 years for defrauding investors, and a billionaire businessman convicted in what’s been called “one of North Carolina’s worst government corruption scandals.”
Several groups that have pushed for a criminal justice overhaul are working with an ad hoc White House team under the direction of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, with a goal of announcing as many as hundreds of commutations for offenders now in jail for crimes ranging from nonviolent drug convictions to mail fraud and money laundering.
“Lists of people are being circulated,” said Brandon Sample, a Vermont lawyer who specializes in presidential pardons and has submitted several names of people to be considered.
Information for this article was contributed by Rosalind S. Helderman and Spencer S. Hsu of The Washington Post; by Kenneth P. Vogel and Eric Lipton of The New York Times; and by Eric Tucker of The Associated Press.