President Donald Trump on Wednesday said that he had pardoned Michael Flynn, his first national security advisor, who pleaded guilty three years ago to lying to FBI agents.
The pardon came before a judge had ruled on a pending motion by the U.S. Department of Justice to dismiss the case and Flynn’s guilty plea. Flynn had twice admitted to a federal judge that he made false statements to FBI agents about the nature of his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the United States in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.
“It is my Great Honor to announce that General Michael T. Flynn has been granted a Full Pardon,” Trump wrote in a Twitter post.
“Congratulations to @GenFlynn and his wonderful family, I know you will now have a truly fantastic Thanksgiving!”
Trump repeatedly has said he was considering granting a pardon to the retired Army lieutenant general, whom he fired in early 2017 as his national security advisor after only weeks on the job after Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his talks with the Russian diplomat.
And there has been widespread speculation, after Democratic nominee Joe Biden was projected to win the presidential election, that Trump would pardon Flynn and other people in his final weeks in the White House.
Trump so far has refused to concede the election. But he is given little chance of overturning Biden’s win through either legal challenges to ballots or state popular vote recounts, which means he likely has less than two months to issue any pardons or sentence commutations.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, in a statement, said, “The President has pardoned General Flynn because he should never have been prosecuted.”
“An independent review of General Flynn’s case by the Department of Justice — conducted by respected career professionals— supports this conclusion,” McEnany said. “In fact, the Department of Justice has firmly concluded that the charges against General Flynn should be dropped. This Full Pardon achieves that objective, finally bringing to an end the relentless, partisan pursuit of an innocent man.”
“General Flynn should not require a pardon. He is an innocent man,” she said. “Even the FBI agents who interviewed General Flynn did not think he was lying. Multiple investigations have produced evidence establishing that General Flynn was the victim of partisan government officials engaged in a coordinated attempt to subvert the election of 2016.”
A Justice Department official told NBC News that Flynn’s pardon was “an appropriate use of the President’s pardon power.”
A spokesman for Biden’s transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the pardon.
Less than two hours before Trump’s announcement, Flynn tweeted a verse from the Bible’s Book of Jeremiah, which says, “And they shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail against thee; for I am with thee, saith the Lord, to deliver thee.”
Flynn’s defense lawyer Sidney Powell in September told Judge Emmet Sullivan, who was handling the case, that she had spoken directly to Trump about the “overall status” of litigation.
Powell also said at a court hearing that she had asked Trump “not to issue a pardon” to Flynn while she continued efforts to have his case dismissed as the Justice Department was requesting.
In a statement Wednesday, Powell said, “The pardon of Michael Flynn is solely up to the President, but given the corruption we have witnessed in the judiciary and multiple agencies of government executed against General Flynn, this persecution should end.”
“The FBI and [Department of Justice] have been a national embarrassment for more than 15 years,” Powell said.
“It was my fervent hope to make our judicial system work to exonerate an innocent man—as all the Left would want were he anyone but Trump or Michael Flynn, but enough is enough. This is sick. It’s painfully obvious Judge Sullivan is playing an evil political game with a good man’s life and family.”
Powell was effectively fired from Trump’s own campaign legal team earlier this week when she made claims, without evidence, of widespread election fraud, which included her suggestion that Georgia’s Republican governor and secretary of state were part of a plot to steal the election for Biden there.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, blasted Trump for the pardon.
“Donald Trump has repeatedly abused the pardon power to reward friends and protect those who covered up for him,” Schiff said in a tweet. “This time he pardons Michael Flynn, who lied to hide his dealings with the Russians.”
“It’s no surprise that Trump would go out as he came in — Crooked to the end.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said, “President Trump’s pardon of Michael Flynn is as rotten as it is unsurprising.”
“As a reminder: Michael Flynn pleaded guilty twice to lying to federal investigators in an attempt to cover up his secret communications with the Russian government. His crimes risked our national security and undermined our system of justice,” Blumenthal said.
“President Trump dangled this pardon in an apparent attempt to get Michael Flynn to renege on his agreement to cooperate with federal investigators — and now seems that he’s been rewarded for his malfeasance. I eagerly await the inauguration of a President who believes and acts as if no person — no matter how well-connected — is above the law.”
Trump previously has granted executive clemency to other political allies.
In July, Trump commuted the sentence of longtime Republican operative Roger Stone, who was convicted for lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering as part of then-special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. That commutation came just days before Stone was due to begin a 40-month prison term.
As with Flynn’s case, Trump had called Stone’s prosecution a “witch hunt.”
In May 2018, Trump pardoned Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative pundit and filmmaker. D’Souza was convicted in 2014 of making an illegal campaign contribution.
Flynn pleaded guilty on Dec. 1, 2017, during a hearing in Sullivan’s court.
Flynn admitted falsely telling agents that he and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak had not discussed the need for Russia not to retaliate against the United States for sanctions put on Russia by the outgoing Obama administration as punishment for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
As part of his plea, he agreed to cooperate with the probe then being conducted by Mueller, the former FBI director, of Russian interference in the election and possible coordination with members of Trump’s campaign.
Flynn’s scheduled sentencing hearing in December 2018 was dramatically aborted after Sullivan suggested he had sold out the United States in his actions, and after the judge suggested he would sentence him to jail.
Sullivan agreed to postpone the sentencing to give Flynn time to finish his cooperation with Mueller’s investigation.
But months later, Flynn hired Powell as his new lawyer and began efforts to reverse his guilty plea by claiming misconduct by federal prosecutors.
After opposing Flynn’s efforts for months, the Justice Department earlier this year filed a motion seeking to dismiss the case.
In a filing, then-interim U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Timothy Shea, argued that the FBI’s interview of Flynn was not justified by a counterintelligence investigation and that his lies about what he said to a Russian diplomat were not “material” to that probe.
But Sullivan refused to promptly sign off on the dismissal.
Instead, the judge appointed an outside lawyer to give him arguments against the Justice Department’s request.
That lawyer, former federal judge John Gleeson, later told Sullivan that the Justice Department had engaged in “a gross abuse of prosecutorial power” in asking to drop the case.
“The Government has engaged in highly irregular conduct to benefit a political ally of the President,” Gleeson wrote in a scathing legal filing.
Flynn asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to compel Sullivan to toss his case and to bar the judge from allowing Gleeson to act as an advocate against the Justice Department’s position.
A three-judge panel of that appellate court in its ruling agreed with him that the case should be dismissed.
But Sullivan then asked the full lineup of the judges in that appellate court to reconsider that decision.
The appellate court did so, sending the case back to the judge for consideration of whether to grant the DOJ’s dismissal request.
Although Sullivan held a hearing in the case in late September, he had yet to rule on whether to dismiss the case. If he had denied the request, Flynn would have almost certainly appealed that denial.
But such an appeal would not likely have been resolved before Trump left office in late January.
— CNBC’s Christina Wilkie contributed to this report.