When he first acknowledged lying to the FBI more than two years ago, Michael Flynn brought the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election to the doorstep of the White House and President Donald Trump's inner-circle.
While he was then the fourth ex-Trump aide to face criminal charges in special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry, the former national security adviser was the first to be prosecuted for conduct during Trump’s presidency when he lied about his contacts with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
In subsequent months, he repeatedly acknowledged his crimes and was once moments away from accepting his fate as a convicted felon.
On Thursday, the Justice Department took its boldest step yet to cast doubt on the the legitimacy of Mueller’s investigation by abruptly dropping its case against the retired Army general.
The decision, which already has revived fresh speculation about Attorney General William Barr's close relationship with the White House, comes just more than a week after Trump claimed that newly released FBI notes outlining agents' strategy in advance of their 2017 interview in the retired Army general's White House office exonerated Flynn.
"They tormented him – dirty cops tormented General Flynn," Trump told reporters at the White House last week.
In new court documents filed Thursday, federal prosecutors asserted the FBI's interview of the then-national security adviser was "unjustified."
"The government is not persuaded that the January 24, 2017 interview was conducted with a legitimate investigative basis and therefore does not believe Mr. Flynn’s statements were material even if untrue," the documents state. "Moreover, we do not believe that the government can prove either the relevant false statements or their materiality beyond a reasonable doubt."
The decision by the Justice Department flies in the face of a searing rebuke of Flynn by the federal judge who was weighing his sentencing in December 2018.
"Arguably, you sold your country out," U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said then. "I'm going to be frank with you. This is a very serious offense. It involves making false statements to the FBI on the premises of the White House – in the West Wing."
'I felt it was going to happen'
The interview with FBI agents occurred in Flynn's White House office, four days after he assumed his post as national security adviser.
A final decision on whether the case against Flynn is scuttled will be up to Sullivan, who until Thursday had been weighing Flynn's new effort to withdraw his guilty plea. Flynn has remained free since his 2017 guilty plea.
Speaking to reporters Thursday in the Oval Office, Trump said he didn’t know the Justice Department would be dropping the case against Flynn.
“I felt it was going to happen, just by watching and seeing like everybody else does,” Trump said. “He was an innocent man. He is a great gentleman who was targeted by the Obama administration. He was targeted in order to try to take down a president. What they’ve done is a disgrace, and I hope a big price is going to be paid.”
Trump slammed the Obama administration’s Justice Department and accused it of committing treason, even though the president's own appointee, former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, selected Mueller and oversaw his investigation.
“They’re dishonest, crooked people,” he said. “They’re scum – and I say it a lot – they’re scum. They’re human scum.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the House Intelligence Committee's ranking Democrat, said the Flynn decision "does not exonerate" Flynn.
"But it does incriminate Bill Barr ... in the worst politicization of the Justice Department in its history,” he said.
Flynn had pleaded guilty in 2017. His ultimate sentencing, however, had been stalled in federal court for more than a year after he dumped his initial defense team and hired new attorneys, alleging he was framed in a government conspiracy and while seeking to withdraw his 2017 guilty plea.
His defense team, led by conservative lawyer and Fox News commentator Sidney Powell, accused federal prosecutors forcing him to admit to crimes he didn't commit and hiding evidence that would have exonerated him.
Sullivan had rejected those claims, and as recently as February prosecutors said Flynn had failed to identify any specific government misconduct that would call for his case to be dismissed.
That same month, Barr appointed Missouri U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Jensen to review the Flynn prosecution.
On Thursday, Jensen said he recommended the action to Barr.
"Through the course of my review of General Flynn's case, I concluded the proper and just course was to dismiss the case," Jensen said in a written statement. "I briefed Attorney General Barr on my findings, advised him on these conclusions, and he agreed."
Barr, meanwhile, did not dispute the underlying charge that Flynn had lied.
"A crime cannot be established here," Barr told CBS News on Thursday. "People sometimes plead to things that turn out not to be crimes."
The attorney general also rejected that the decision was politically motivated.
"I want to make sure that we restore confidence," Barr said. "I'm doing the law's bidding."
Flynn case, others put Barr in spotlight
Barr's initial decision to review the case capped a contentious period earlier this year at the Justice Department, which had faced increasing allegations of succumbing to political pressure from Trump.
About the same time, Justice unleashed an uproar after it intervened to reduce its recommended prison sentence for Roger Stone, a longtime friend and ally of Trump who was convicted of seven felonies, including lying to Congress.
Career prosecutors who handled the case had asked for a sentence of seven to nine years in prison, which Trump said was a "miscarriage of justice."
Justice overruled the attorneys, saying the prison recommendation was too harsh. The prosecutors withdrew from Stone's case in apparent protest. One resigned from the Justice Department altogether.
Barr pushed back against criticism that he was doing Trump's bidding, saying in a subsequent ABC interview that Trump "has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case."
Stone, who is appealing his conviction, was ultimately sentenced to three years in prison.
Yet the string of developments have placed the Justice Department's leadership, particularly Barr, under a harsh spotlight. Democrats have accused Barr of meddling in criminal cases for political purposes and have repeatedly called him to testify before Congress.
The decision to drop Flynn's case also casts new speculation on an ongoing inquiry into the origins of the Russia investigation. That inquiry, which Barr launched last year, focuses on whether federal investigators abused their surveillance authority in the initial stages of the Russia investigation. John Durham, Connecticut's chief federal prosecutor, is leading the review.
Democrats railed against the Flynn decision, casting it as further proof of the president's politicization of the Justice Department.
"Donald Trump's corruption of the Justice Department and his devastating attacks on the rule of law will haunt this country long after he leaves office," Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., wrote on Twitter.
Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee that examined the Russia probe, called the decision "outrageous." He said Flynn's close relationship with Trump afforded him "special treatment."
"There is a cancer within DOJ," he added.
Republicans, however, were quick to praise the decision, saying justice had been served.
"Justice for the General. Now it’s time to hold someone accountable," Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, wrote on Twitter.
"After the government spent years destroying General Flynn’s life, justice has finally prevailed," fellow House Republican Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., said on Twitter. "This was a set up from DAY ONE. There MUST be a thorough investigation, and there must be accountability. If it can happen to a three-star General, it can happen to anyone."
Following his firing three years ago, former FBI Director James Comey said Flynn's fate was a pre-occupation with Trump.
Comey said that Trump once implored him to dump the case. Trump has denied the exchange, but Comey said he would not accede to Trump's entreaties.
"The DOJ has lost its way," Comey tweeted Thursday after learning of the Justice action.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DOJ drops case of former Trump aide Flynn, ensnared in Mueller probe