WASHINGTON • The Washington appeals court has ordered false-statement charges against President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn to be dropped, handing the White House a victory in a case that was central to the Russia meddling investigation.
The court endorsed Attorney-General William Barr’s May 7 decision to drop the criminal charges against Mr Flynn even though he had twice pleaded guilty to lying to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigators, overruling a lower court judge who was ready to sentence him. Mr Barr’s decision to drop the charges sparked an open rift in the Department of Justice (DOJ), pitting him against the federal district judge in the case, Judge Emmet Sullivan, and the department’s own prosecutors.
The move, more than three years after Mr Flynn was first investigated for secret discussions he had with Russia’s envoy in Washington, drew allegations that Mr Barr was doing Mr Trump’s political bidding.
After the court’s announcement on Wednesday, Mr Trump, who had earlier hinted he could pardon the former Pentagon intelligence chief, tweeted the decision was “great”.
White House spokesman Kayleigh McEnany said in a tweet it was a “victory for justice and truth”.
The DOJ said last month in a filing that the FBI’s original probe of the retired three-star general, part of the counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, had no “legitimate investigative basis”.
The case was a cornerstone of the 22-month investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Moscow’s meddling in the election.
Mr Flynn drew attention for a number of contacts with Russia, including being paid tens of thousands of dollars the previous year to attend a banquet in Moscow for Russian media giant RT, where he sat next to President Vladimir Putin.
The probe ultimately focused on his secret talks in December 2016 – before Mr Trump was inaugurated – with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. In wiretapped phone calls, Mr Flynn allegedly sought to cut political deals with Moscow for the incoming administration, deals which undermined the positions of the Barack Obama government.
On Dec 1, 2017, Mr Mueller announced a deal with Mr Flynn in which certain charges would be dropped and the latter would plead guilty on the charge of lying and cooperate with the probe into others.
The appeals court decision was led by one of Mr Trump’s most controversial and conservative appointments, Judge Neomi Rao, who wrote that the DOJ has the discretion to drop its case, no matter how far advanced it is, and a judge is not empowered to overrule that discretion.