AILSA CHANG, HOST:
In a spectacular reversal, the Justice Department announced that it is dropping its case against President Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. In 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. This about-face by the department closes the long-running case against Flynn that was first brought by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of the Russia investigation. NPR's justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us now. Hey, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.
CHANG: All right, so what did the government say went wrong here?
LUCAS: So the department says, in its latest filing, that it did an extensive review of this case. It discovered some new documents. There was some newly declassified information. And it came to the conclusion that it doesn't serve the interests of justice to continue this case against Flynn. Remember that Flynn was interviewed by the FBI in January of 2017, and it was in that interview that he lied to them about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.
Now, in this new filing, the department says that some of the new documents lead the department to conclude that the FBI's interview of Flynn was, quote, "untethered to and unjustified by" the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into Flynn at the time. They also say that the false statements that Flynn made don't meet the legal standard of being material to the investigation. So at root, there was no legitimate basis for investigating Flynn when that interview took place.
CHANG: OK. So the DOJ is saying there were some missteps here. But Michael Flynn had already pleaded guilty to charges. Remind us exactly what those charges were.
LUCAS: Right. He pleaded guilty to a single false statement count that came out of that FBI interview. And as I said, those were about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. at the time, Sergey Kislyak. And remember - this case against Flynn was brought, as you said, as part of the Mueller investigation. And Flynn didn't plead guilty to this once; he twice in court stood up and pleaded guilty to this charge. And he then cooperated extensively with Mueller's team in its investigation.
Now, Flynn was in court for sentencing in December of 2018. There was a bit of a snafu at the time. They pushed off sentencing, delayed it. He then brought new lawyers onto his team last summer, and he did a reversal then. He actually stopped cooperating with the government. He accused the Justice Department of egregious misconduct, of trying to frame him. And he actually has been seeking to withdraw his plea since earlier this year. Now he doesn't have to fight this anymore. The department is just dropping the charges against him.
CHANG: Interesting. Well, do you think this decision by the Justice Department to drop the case tarnishes the FBI's reputation?
LUCAS: Certainly in the eyes of Flynn's supporters, one of whom, of course, is President Trump - yes. And the FBI's conduct, in their eyes, was improper and biased from the beginning. That's the argument that Flynn's lawyers have been making for months, and it's one that has certainly gained a lot of traction in conservative media. Now, the Justice Department deciding to drop the case appears to show that the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., Timothy Shea, who signed this document today, he at least agrees.
But it's important to say, the lead prosecutor on the case, Brandon Van Grack - he was a member of Mueller's team - he withdrew from this case today, shortly before the department moved to drop the prosecution. Van Grack didn't give a reason for it, but it may very well be because he disagreed with the move.
CHANG: Right. Well, the attorney general, Bill Barr, has long expressed skepticism about the Mueller investigation. So what is his role in all of this?
LUCAS: So earlier this year, Barr appointed a U.S. attorney for Missouri, Jeffrey Jensen, to review the Flynn prosecution. Jensen said in a statement today that he looked everything over. His decision was to dismiss the case. He says he briefed Barr on that, and the attorney general agreed. But there are critics of Barr who certainly are going to look at this and say this raises more questions for them about the politicization of the department under Barr.
CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thank you, Ryan.
LUCAS: Thank you.
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