New developments in the Michael Flynn case have breathed new life into old controversies about Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the never-ending fallout.
Flynn, who was President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser before resigning and pleading guilty to lying to the FBI, is in a state of legal limbo. The Justice Department reversed course this month and asked to drop the case against him, and a federal judge is reviewing the request.
The saga, which has been smoldering for more than three years, includes controversial moves by the FBI, Flynn’s own problematic contacts with a Russian official, a series of high-profile leaks, blatant lies to the public and to the FBI, potential blackmail and almost everything in between.
Here are answers to some of the most basic questions about Flynn and the investigation:
Who is Flynn?
Flynn, 61, is a retired Army lieutenant general who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He earned numerous awards during his military career and was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2012 to run the Defense Intelligence Agency, the top military intelligence service in the country.
After two years on the job, Flynn was forced out and retired from the military. He launched a consulting firm and reemerged in 2016 as a Trump adviser. He became a prominent campaign surrogate and gave a polarizing speech at the GOP convention calling for Hillary Clinton to be jailed. After Trump won the election, he picked Flynn to become his national security adviser.
What did he do?
Flynn’s problems can largely be traced back to his conversations with a senior Russian official during the presidential transition. In a series of calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Flynn undercut Obama’s newly announced sanctions against Russia for meddling in the 2016 election. In the calls, Flynn also undermined the official US position toward a United Nations resolution about Israel, according to court filings.
These calls were intercepted by routine US surveillance of foreign diplomats, and US officials leaked details to the press, a potentially illegal leak because the information is highly classified. Flynn misled his fellow Trump officials by saying sanctions hadn’t been discussed, and those officials repeated Flynn’s false denials on television.
Because the calls had been intercepted by US intelligence, the FBI and Justice Department knew that the public explanation from team Trump wasn’t true. Days after Trump took office, the FBI questioned Flynn about the calls, and he told four distinct lies, according to court filings.
Justice Department officials soon warned the Trump White House about Flynn’s dishonesty, and how Vice President Mike Pence and others had publicly repeated Flynn’s lies, making them vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Flynn was fired in February 2017 after three weeks on the job, and Trump said at the time that Flynn had to go because he had lied to Pence.
Didn’t he plead guilty?
When Flynn was fired, the Russia investigation was still being run by the FBI. Things ramped up by spring 2017 and special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to take over the investigation. Mueller scrutinized Flynn’s conduct, including Flynn’s undisclosed pro-Turkey lobbying in 2016.
Flynn and Mueller reached a plea agreement in December 2017. Flynn agreed to help the probe and eventually provided evidence against Trump. Mueller let Flynn plead guilty to one count of lying to the FBI, and agreed not to bring charges on Flynn’s other lies or on the illegal lobbying.
The case progressed relatively normally until June 2019, when Flynn fired his lawyers and brought on an aggressive team of right-wing firebrands. Instead of letting the case wrap up as planned and proceed to sentencing, Flynn’s lawyers started accusing the FBI of bias and misconduct, and he later asked to withdraw his guilty plea.
What happened this month?
Attorney General William Barr took the unusual step of asking a separate team of federal prosecutors to review the case files. This outside team provided Flynn’s lawyers with some documents last month, even though some of the documents were already in the record. Flynn’s team posted the files on the public docket.
Seizing on these documents, Trump and his conservative allies claimed Flynn was “exonerated” and that the charges should be dropped, even though Flynn had admitted his own guilt under oath. Trump said he was considering a pardon and might bring Flynn back into the administration.
The Justice Department, in a bombshell announcement last week, told federal Judge Emmet Sullivan it was dropping the case. Its filing renounced years of legal arguments and contradicted past positions. The court papers were signed by a top Barr ally and none of the career prosecutors, prompting accusations from across the political spectrum that Barr was twisting the law to do Trump’s bidding. Barr said the request had been made for legal, not political, reasons.
What are the next steps?
Sullivan is running the show right now. The criminal case isn’t technically over until he grants the Justice Department’s request to drop the charges.
Legal experts say he doesn’t have much leeway to reject that request, even if he wants to.
But he doesn’t have to rubber-stamp it right away, and he made that clear Tuesday by announcing that some outside parties would be allowed to weigh in on the case. Already, a group of former Watergate prosecutors want to argue the case against Flynn. Sullivan could hold hearings, question witnesses and even appoint an outside lawyer to look for improprieties by Barr’s team.
In a bold flex of judicial power, Sullivan on Wednesday appointed a retired judge to look into the case and argue against the Justice Department’s request to drop the prosecution. Sullivan also asked the judge to weigh in on the possibility that Flynn had perjured himself, a prospect that came into play when Flynn told the court on separate occasions that he is both guilty and innocent.
Meanwhile, Trump could pardon Flynn whenever he wants. Time will tell if that happens before the legal process plays out in court, before the November election or if it even happens at all.
This story has been updated with developments late Wednesday.
CNN’s Katelyn Polantz contributed to this report.