With the Justice Department announcing Thursday that it would drop the case against Michael Flynn, officials close to President Donald Trump are already gaming out ways to bring the former national security adviser back onto the national political stage.
Of the nine senior Trump administration officials, campaign staff, outside advisers, and longtime associates of the president reached on Thursday, all said that they wanted Flynn to assume some public-facing role in service of the president, including potentially as an official Trump surrogate as Election Day inches closer. One even compared the ex-general, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials, to one of history’s greatest human rights icons.
“Years ago when Nelson Mandela came to America after years of political persecution he was treated like a rock star by Americans,” John McLaughlin, one of President Trump’s chief pollsters, told The Daily Beast on Thursday evening. “Now after over three years of political persecution General Flynn is our rock star. A big difference is that he was persecuted in America.”
Flynn’s career has been defined by remarkable highs and humiliating lows, having gone from a well-respected intelligence official to an outcast in the Obama administration, to a top surrogate for an insurgent Trump campaign to a disgraced but cooperative witness in the Mueller probe. A forthcoming chapter as a redeemed MAGA hero would seem, in some regards, almost appropriate.
Trump himself seems determined to see it happen. According to a source who has spoken to the president about Flynn in the past month, Trump had made clear that if legal circumstances permitted, he would want Flynn to get “something good” in his political orbit following years of bad press and legal turmoil. The source said it was unclear if Trump meant a job in the administration, a role for the 2020 campaign, or another position. But the remark was in keeping with other comments that the president made throughout Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
As The Daily Beast reported in May 2017, Trump privately expressed hopes that a conclusion of the FBI investigation might permit Flynn to rejoin the administration from which he had recently gotten the boot. Several sources close to Trump said at the time that the president didn’t even believe Flynn should have been under investigation at all.
“Trump feels really, really, really bad about firing him, and he genuinely thinks if the investigation is over Flynn can come back,” one White House official said in May 2017.
Last week, the president told the press that he would “certainly consider” reinstalling Flynn in his administration, adding that the retired general was already an “exonerated” man, even before the Justice Department ditched the case.
Hours after the charges against Flynn were dropped, Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale and other top aides were already using the news to attack Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential pick.
Should Flynn himself assume a more overtly political role in the run-up to the election it would almost certainly embroil his own Justice Department in further controversy. The decision by the department to drop its charges against the former national security adviser came as a shock to longtime DOJ hands, Russia investigation watchers, national security types, and even some inside the building.
“The most remarkable thing about the brief filed today is the signature block. U.S. Attorney [Timothy] Shea signed the motion without any Assistant U.S. Attorney in the signature block. I have never seen that before and nobody I know has either,” said a current DOJ official. “The reason, of course, is that nobody would sign that fucking garbage.”
For the more cynical types, however, the writing had been increasingly on the wall. For more than a week, national security officials in the Trump administration said they had been anticipating either a pardon for Flynn or some drastic turn in the case that would essentially let him off the hook, aided by an Attorney General, Bill Barr, who has become increasingly unbridled in his allegiance to Trump.
“It became clear last week as more of the information was declassified that we’d start to see some movement-big movement… on the case,” one senior national security official told The Daily Beast. “It really was just a matter of time.”
The groundwork started to be laid about 18 months ago, when Flynn hired new, more aggressive lawyers, including Sidney Powell, a frequent Fox News commentator. In January of this year, his team moved to withdraw his 2017 guilty plea for lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials.
Since then, Flynn’s lawyers and advocates have appeared on Fox News and other conservative channels slamming the FBI for its handling of its interview with Flynn in January 2017, arguing that the FBI was trying to get the former national security adviser to lie, or set him up. On April 30, the government released a page of handwritten notes from E.W. Priestap, the FBI’s former assistant director of counterintelligence, that showed how officials approached their interview with Flynn.
“What is our goal?” the notes said. “Truth/admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired? If we get him to admit to breaking the Logan Act, give facts to DOJ & have them decide. Or, if he initially lies, then we present him [redacted] & he admits it, document for DOJ, & let them decide how to address it.”
The unsealing of that document only added to calls from conservative politicians and pundits for a full review of the FBI’s actions during its Russia investigation.
DOJ’s announcement that it had decided to drop the Flynn case Thursday seemed to spark a new talking point among those same pundits: that there was nothing inherently wrong with a national security adviser reaching out to a counterpart, in this case Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. But former FBI deputy head Andrew McCabe said in a statement Thursday that the suggestion there was no reason to interview Flynn was “patently false, and ignores the considerable national security risk his contacts raised.”
The current DOJ official told The Daily Beast it was “just beyond absurd” that, as the Justice Department noted in its brief, the “FBI had no reason to believe Flynn could be beholden to a foreign power.” Flynn not only admitted to a grand jury that he was on “the Turkish payroll,” the source noted; he “was having conversations with the Russian ambassador” and felt compelled to lie about it to Vice President Mike Pence.
As a practical legal matter, Thursday’s news shocked experts who noted that it is incredibly rare for the government to drop a case in which a defendant pleads guilty. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan could refuse the motion in the coming days. But if he does sign off on the dismissal, it would mean Flynn could not be tried again.
—with additional reporting by Noah Shachtman