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DOJ Will Drop Case Against Ex-Trump Adviser Michael Flynn

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yesterday, the Department of Justice reversed one of the most high-profile cases in the Mueller investigation. Michael Flynn served as President Trump's first national security adviser. He pleaded guilty twice to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia. Now, the DOJ is dropping its case against him, and let's talk this through with NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Feel like a lot has happened in the world since we last talked about Michael Flynn. Can you just remind us what his story is?

LUCAS: Right. The FBI began investigating Flynn back in 2016 as part of the broader Russia investigation. FBI interview - FBI agents interviewed him at the White House in January of 2017, and in that interview, Flynn lied to them about conversations he had had with the Russian ambassador to the United States. A few weeks later, Flynn left the administration for allegedly lying to the vice president about those talks with the Russian envoy. Then in late 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to a single count of making false statements to the FBI. The case against him was part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, and Flynn went on to cooperate extensively with Mueller's team in that investigation.

GREENE: OK, so given all of that, what is the Justice Department's reasoning now to drop the case?

LUCAS: Well, earlier this year, Attorney General William Barr brought in the U.S. attorney for Missouri, Jeff Jensen, to take a look at the Flynn case from top to bottom. And what the department says in its filing to the court yesterday is that after reviewing everything closely, it came to the conclusion that continuing Flynn's prosecution wouldn't be in the interest of justice. Now, this decision revolves around the interview that I mentioned earlier that Flynn had with the FBI, the interview where he lied to the agents. The department now says that after looking at some newly discovered documents and declassified information, it concluded that that interview was unjustified, that there was no legitimate investigative basis for it. Basically, it says that interview never should have taken place. It also says that Flynn's lies about his talks with the Russian ambassador weren't material to the investigation, an investigation that was seeking to determine the nature of Flynn's relationship with Russia, of course.

GREENE: So to what extent is the FBI facing some questions here? I mean, could this be a significant moment for the FBI and its reputation?

LUCAS: Well, certainly for Flynn and his supporters, they view this as vindication of their long-running allegations of misconduct by the FBI, their allegations that bad actors in the FBI were out to get Flynn from the very beginning, that this was all part of a setup. That's in part why Flynn and his case have become, really, a central element of attacks against the Mueller investigation. President Trump has certainly pushed that view. Now, critics of the Justice Department's decision here point out that Flynn did, as you mentioned, twice stand up in court before a judge and plead guilty to lying about these very conversations with the Russian ambassador.

GREENE: Well, I mean, you mentioned the Mueller investigation. The attorney general, Bill Barr, has been a vocal critic of that investigation to say the least. What role did he play in this decision?

LUCAS: So the outside prosecutor who reviewed the Flynn material decided, after going through everything, that the case should be dropped. He says that he briefed Attorney General Bill Barr on that decision and that Barr agreed. Now Barr told "CBS News" last night that it was ultimately his decision to drop this case. Here's a bit of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM BARR: I want to make sure that we restore confidence in the system. There's only one standard of justice.

LUCAS: Now, for many former prosecutors and critics of Barr, this move does the exact opposite of restoring confidence in the justice system. Critics point to this decision as another instance of Barr putting his thumb on the scales for a friend of the president. And instead of restoring confidence in the justice system, for many, this actually deepens concerns about the politicization of the Department under Bill Barr's leadership.

GREENE: NPR's justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks a lot.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.