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Trump pardons Michael Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI

NBC News logo NBC News 11/25/2020 Dareh Gregorian and Michael Kosnar
Michael T. Flynn wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn departs U.S. District Court in Washington on Dec. 1, 2017. © Jonathan Ernst Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn departs U.S. District Court in Washington on Dec. 1, 2017.

President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he had granted a "full pardon" to his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

The move had long been expected after Trump said in March he was "strongly considering" pardoning Flynn, who initially cooperated with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election before contending that he had been railroaded by prosecutors who were unfairly targeting Trump. The White House seized on that narrative as proof that Trump was the victim of a "hoax" investigation.

"If the top leaders of the FBI can target a three-star general with three decades of service, they can target you," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said this year.

Despite Flynn's guilty pleas, the Justice Department moved in May to dismiss the criminal charges, a move Democrats alleged that Attorney General William Barr was making to appease the president. The request was put on hold while the federal judge presiding over Flynn's case reviewed the request.

A Justice Department official said that Trump's action was "an appropriate use of the president's pardon power" but that the agency wasn't consulted about the move. "We were given a head's up today," the official said.

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The official said they would have "preferred" for "the matter to be resolved in court."

"We were confident in the likelihood of our success in the case," the official said.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said the pardon was "undeserved, unprincipled, and one more stain on President Trump's rapidly diminishing legacy."

"President Trump dangled this pardon to encourage Flynn to backtrack on his pledge to cooperate with federal investigators — cooperation that might have exposed the President's own wrongdoing. And it worked," Nadler said in a statement.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said, "It's no surprise that Trump would go out just as he came in — crooked to the end."

Flynn's case had been championed by Trump's defenders, who decried Mueller's tactics and portrayed Flynn as having been railroaded by the FBI and the "deep state."

House Judiciary Republicans said in a tweet that the "pardon is well deserved, principled, and one of President Trump's best decisions."

"Every American, including @RepJerryNadler, should be enraged by what James Comey's FBI did to General Flynn. Justice!" they said.

The committee's ranking member, Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., celebrated the pardon, tweeting: "Justice! Thank you, Mr. President!"

Flynn's family also issued a statement, thanking Trump "for answering our prayers and the prayers of a nation by removing the heavy burden of injustice off the shoulders of our brother Michael, with a full pardon of innocence."

Flynn, 61, was a top campaign surrogate for Trump in 2016, and he led chants of "lock her up" about Trump's 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, in a speech at the Republican National Convention that year.

Trump named Flynn as his national security adviser after winning the election, even though he had been warned in a meeting by President Barack Obama that Flynn wasn't suited to the job, NBC News reported in 2017. Obama had fired Flynn as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014.

Flynn didn't last long as Trump's national security adviser — he resigned after less than four weeks into the job after it was revealed that he had lied to Vice President-elect Mike Pence and other administration officials about conversations he'd had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

In one of the calls, Flynn asked Kislyak — whose communications were being monitored — whether Russia would hold off on retaliatory sanctions against the U.S. because Trump would reverse the Obama administration's sanctions punishing Russia for election meddling.

Flynn denied that he had done so to Pence, who repeated Flynn's denial publicly. That led FBI Director James Comey to send agents to interview Flynn. Flynn lied to those agents, as well — a federal crime that Mueller's team used to get a guilty plea from Flynn.

After Flynn's initial plea, Trump tweeted, "I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI."

"He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!" Trump added.

Trump adviser Hope Hicks told Mueller's investigators that Trump thought Flynn had "bad judgment."

Trump's opinion of Flynn appeared to change after Flynn stopped cooperating with Mueller's team, switched lawyers and complained that he had been "duped" into pleading guilty by investigators seeking to nail Trump.

"He is a great gentleman," Trump said this year.

The Justice Department also softened its stance, with Barr ordering a U.S. attorney to review the case and with Justice Department officials intervening in January to change the government's sentencing recommendation for Flynn from six months in jail to probation.

In May, the U.S. attorney whom Barr appointed to review the case found that Flynn shouldn't have been questioned by the FBI in the first place and recommended that the charges be dropped.

Barr — who has repeatedly criticized the Mueller investigation — agreed.

"A crime cannot be established here," Barr told CBS News, adding that "people sometimes plead to things that turn out not be crimes."

Asked whether he was doing Trump's bidding, Barr said, "I'm doing the law's bidding."

In another twist, Flynn's lawyer Sidney Powell — who recently was working with the Trump campaign in its efforts to overturn the election results — acknowledged that she had had a direct conversation with Trump about Flynn's case.

"I provided the White House an update on the status of the litigation," she said in court in September. "And I asked that the president not issue a pardon."

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