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Flynn fights for exoneration two years after pleading guilty

Trump Flynn
Michael Flynn, President Trump’s first national security advisor, leaves the federal courthouse in Washington after a hearing last year.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Clad in a black and blue wetsuit, with a surfboard tucked under his right arm, a sopping wet Michael Flynn trudged up the street and away from the beach in his Rhode Island hometown.

“Isn’t it funny that this is Purgatory Road?” he said in a video posted online by his family last week.

None of the dozens ensnared in the now-closed Russia investigation has been stuck in limbo like Flynn, who served three weeks as President Trump’s first national security advisor until he was forced out in February 2017.

The retired Army three-star general pleaded guilty that December to lying to FBI agents about his conversations with Russia’s then-ambassador. But unlike the six other Americans charged in the special counsel investigation, he has yet to be sentenced.

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Flynn instead has launched a quest to clear his name by claiming he was “deliberately set up and framed by corrupt agents.” He’s asked U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan to dismiss the case — no small matter since he admitted committing a felony and affirmed his guilt in a subsequent court hearing.

The effort has made Flynn a cause célèbre for conservative politicians and media figures who believe he was mistreated. President Trump has publicly mused about pardoning his former aide, and the case clearly is on his mind.

During an Oval Office meeting Thursday on the coronavirus crisis, Trump asserted that Flynn is “in the process of being exonerated” and he blamed “dirty cops” for prosecuting the case.

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“They destroyed him but he’s going to come back, like I say he’s going to come back, bigger and better,” the president said. At a subsequent event Thursday, Trump said he would consider allowing Flynn to return to his administration.

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President Trump has considered pardoning Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty during the Russia investigation.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Trump remains bruised over the Russia investigation and is eager to scrub its stain from his presidency. An exoneration of his former aide would help rewrite the results of that saga, and the effort has gotten a boost from the same Justice Department that prosecuted Flynn.

Although federal prosecutors in Washington are handling Flynn’s case, Atty. Gen. William Barr directed Jeffrey Jensen, the U.S. attorney in St. Louis, to conduct a separate review, an unusual step that has led to additional documents being given to the defense.

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Records released Thursday showed that the FBI was prepared to close its investigation of Flynn — codenamed “Crossfire Razor” — on Jan. 4, 2017, because he was “no longer a viable candidate,” apparently meaning a likely target, as part of the Russia probe.

But agents decided to interview him on Jan. 24, 2017, and that encounter became the core of the case against him. A handwritten note unsealed on Wednesday asked “what is our goal” for interviewing Flynn at the White House.

“Get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” the note asks. It goes on to say investigators should “protect our institution by not playing games.”

Legal experts who have publicly defended the Russia investigation said the disclosures do not change the facts of Flynn’s crime.

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But the documents sparked outrage among Flynn’s allies, which include conservative websites, Fox News hosts and Republican politicians. Twitter supporters have added three stars to their usernames to show support for the retired three-star general.

The Russia investigation has provided a barrage of headlines, court cases, tweets and speculation since before the last presidential election.

Flynn served more than three decades in the Army, leading battlefield intelligence efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama picked him to run the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, but he was forced out in 2014 for what White House aides called mismanagement.

Flynn eventually signed onto Trump’s 2016 campaign as a national security expert and enthusiastic booster. He was rewarded with the coveted post of national security advisor after Trump’s unexpected election victory.

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He didn’t last long. Flynn was ousted soon after Trump’s inauguration when it emerged that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about his calls with the Russian envoy during the presidential transition.

While still at the White House, FBI agents had questioned Flynn as part of their investigation into Moscow’s meddling in the election. Flynn eventually pleaded guilty to lying to them about his conversations with the diplomat about sanctions enacted by the outgoing Obama administration as punishment for Russia’s actions.

In his guilty plea, Flynn also admitted to illegally lobbying for Turkey while he was advising Trump’s campaign. He avoided charges for that offense through his plea deal, and he was expected to testify against his former business partner at a subsequent trial.

But prosecutors never called Flynn to the witness stand. He also fired his original legal team and hired a new defense attorney, Sidney Powell, a favorite in the right-wing legal community.

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Sidney Powell, Michael Flynn’s defense attorney, trails her client as they leave the federal courthouse in Washington in September.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

In court filings, Powell said Flynn’s previous lawyers provided ineffective counsel, and accused prosecutors of targeting him “knowing there was no crime.”

Powell also argued that Brandon Van Grack, who worked for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and is still at the Justice Department, improperly threatened to charge Flynn’s son as leverage to get Flynn to plead guilty. The son, who was not charged, worked for Flynn’s consulting firm while it lobbied on Turkey’s behalf.

Former prosecutors say such hardball tactics are routine in criminal cases.

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“I can say with great confidence that kind of pressure is pretty common,” said Shanlon Wu, a former federal prosecutor who now is a defense attorney.

Flynn’s allies also point to a previously released memo summarizing the FBI interview with Flynn as evidence he did nothing wrong.

The two agents who conducted the interview “had the impression at the time that Flynn was not lying or did not think he was lying,” the memo said.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told Fox News that Flynn was “framed by our own government.” But the memo doesn’t say Flynn didn’t lie, only that he didn’t give the appearance of lying.

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If the judge doesn’t dismiss the case, Flynn’s battle could backfire. Mueller’s team originally recommended probation, but on Jan. 7 prosecutors asked the judge to impose a six-month sentence, saying he had not cooperated, as he had agreed in the plea deal, and “behaved as though the law does not apply to him.”

Flynn has deleted a tweet from 2017 where he admitted wrongdoing. He now claims he doesn’t remember if he discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador, although he had admitted to exactly that.

“As God is my witness, the truth is I am innocent of these charges,” he wrote in a Jan. 29 court filing. “I will fight to restore my good name.”

After the documents were released Wednesday, Flynn tweeted a video of an American flag waving in the wind. The president retweeted the video and added a single word — “Great!”


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