DOJ drops case against Flynn, despite his earlier guilty plea

As Trump and Barr politicize federal law enforcement, Flynn is no longer facing criminal charges - including the ones to which he previously pleaded guilty
Image: National security adviser Michael Flynn listens to President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Jan. 31, 2017.
National security adviser Michael Flynn listens to President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Jan. 31, 2017.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

For much of the political world, it seemed almost inevitable that Donald Trump would pardon Michael Flynn, his disgraced former White House national security advisor. As it turns out, however, a presidential pardon won't be necessary after all. The Associated Pres reported this afternoon:

The Justice Department on Thursday said it is dropping the criminal case against President Donald Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, abandoning a prosecution that became a rallying cry for Trump and his supporters in attacking the FBI's Russia investigation.

It wasn't long ago that this outcome would've seemed bizarre. Federal prosecutors charged Flynn after he lied to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian government, lied to investigators about being a paid foreign agent, and acted illegally as an unregistered foreign agent during the time that he was the top national security adviser on the Trump campaign.

For his part, Flynn admitted he lied, pleaded guilty, and became a cooperating witness with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

In December 2018, a conservative federal judge told Flynn during a sentencing hearing, "Arguably, you sold your country out" by working as an unregistered foreign agent. The judge even briefly broached the subject of whether Flynn committed "treason."

But in the months that followed, the legal case changed dramatically. Flynn replaced his legal defense team and decided he didn't want to plead guilty anymore. Attorney General Bill Barr, indifferent to concerns about his involvement in cases directly relevant to the White House, took a special interest in the charges against Flynn and directed U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen to scrutinize the investigation into the retired Army general.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump, who fired Flynn a few weeks after taking office, began lashing out at federal law enforcement's handling of the case, insisting that his former had been "totally exonerated." (He hadn't.)

And now the Justice Department is dropping the charges altogether.

While these developments are new and still coming into focus, it's hard to separate them from the larger context at the Justice Department. It may seem like ages ago, but it was earlier this year when federal law enforcement confronted a genuine emergency for the rule law, with Trump and Barr politicizing the process in ways without modern precedent, leading several federal prosecutors to resign in protest.

As we discussed in February, a pattern emerged and it was not subtle: on cases of interest to Trump, we saw the president's attorney general, trying to steer prosecutorial decisions in ways consistent with the White House's wishes. The result was a dynamic in which there two parallel systems seemed to take shape: one for cases that the president cares about, in which Barr played a direct and personal role, and another for the rest of the justice system.

A Washington Post report added at the time that Barr's Justice Department "has repeatedly tasked U.S. attorneys from far-flung offices to parachute into politically explosive cases," which has raised "concerns among current and former officials that agency leaders are trying to please the president by reviewing and reinvestigating cases in which he is personally or politically invested."

The article specifically referenced the attorney general's intervention in the Flynn case, which current and former officials said "seemed to be part of a new pattern of Justice Department political leadership spinning up inquiries that might help Trump and his friends and hurt their perceived foes."

It's against this backdrop that Michael Flynn, who advised Candidate Trump before taking on a high-ranking position under President Trump, is no longer facing criminal charges -- including the charges to which he previously pleaded guilty.