Exclusive: Obama says in private call that 'rule of law is at risk' in Michael Flynn case

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama, talking privately to ex-members of his administration, said Friday that the “rule of law is at risk” in the wake of what he called an unprecedented move by the Justice Department to drop charges against former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn.

In the same chat, a tape of which was obtained by Yahoo News, Obama also lashed out at the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic as “an absolute chaotic disaster.”

“The news over the last 24 hours I think has been somewhat downplayed — about the Justice Department dropping charges against Michael Flynn,” Obama said in a web talk with members of the Obama Alumni Association.

“And the fact that there is no precedent that anybody can find for someone who has been charged with perjury just getting off scot-free. That’s the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic — not just institutional norms — but our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk. And when you start moving in those directions, it can accelerate pretty quickly as we’ve seen in other places.”

The Flynn case was invoked by Obama as a principal reason that his former administration officials needed to make sure former Vice President Joe Biden wins the November election against President Trump. “So I am hoping that all of you feel the same sense of urgency that I do,” he said. “Whenever I campaign, I’ve always said, ‘Ah, this is the most important election.’ Especially obviously when I was on the ballot, that always feels like it's the most important election. This one — I’m not on the ballot — but I am pretty darn invested. We got to make this happen.”

Obama misstated the charge to which Flynn had previously pleaded guilty. He was charged with false statements to the FBI, not perjury. But the Justice Department, in a filing with a federal judge on Thursday, asked that the case brought by special counsel Robert Mueller be dismissed, arguing that FBI agents did not have a justifiable reason to question the then national security adviser about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak — talks FBI agents and Mueller’s prosecutors concluded he had lied about.

Still, Obama’s unvarnished remarks were some of his sharpest yet about the Trump administration and appeared to forecast a dramatically stepped-up political role he intends to play in this year’s election. The comments came during a lengthy chat in which he also sharply criticized the response to the coronavirus pandemic, blaming it on the “tribal” trends that have been stoked by the president and his allies.

Former President Barack Obama, from a Joe Biden campaign video. (Olivier Douliery/BidenForPresident/AFP via Getty Images)

“This election that’s coming up on every level is so important because what we’re going to be battling is not just a particular individual or a political party. What we’re fighting against is these long-term trends in which being selfish, being tribal, being divided, and seeing others as an enemy — that has become a stronger impulse in American life. And by the way, we’re seeing that internationally as well. It’s part of the reason why the response to this global crisis has been so anemic and spotty. It would have been bad even with the best of governments. It has been an absolute chaotic disaster when that mindset — of ‘what’s in it for me’ and ‘to heck with everybody else’ — when that mindset is operationalized in our government.

“That’s why, I, by the way, am going to be spending as much time as necessary and campaigning as hard as I can for Joe Biden,” he added.

Obama’s remarks about Flynn seemed especially pointed in light of the fact that the former Army general had served in his administration as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency — until he was forced out by administration officials who viewed him as a chaotic, insubordinate manager. During the transition, Obama even warned Trump not to hire Flynn — advice that Trump ignored.

Obama also gave some insights into his life during the pandemic. The lack of sports, he said, is “driving me nuts.” But there was a bright side, he added. His daughters, Malia and Sasha, “are stuck having dinner with me” at home.

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