Washington: The US Justice Department on Thursday abruptly asked a judge to drop criminal charges against Donald Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn following mounting pressure from the Republican president and his political allies on the right.
The move drew furious criticism from congressional Democrats and others who accused the department and Attorney General William Barr of politicising the US criminal justice system by bending to Trump's wishes and improperly protecting his friends and associates in criminal cases.
Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who served as an adviser to Trump during the 2016 campaign, had been seeking to withdraw his 2017 guilty plea in which he admitted to lying to the FBI about his interactions with Russia's US ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the weeks before Trump took office.
The Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss the charges with US District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who has presided over the case and has a reputation for fierce independence. Judges generally grant such motions, but Sullivan could demand answers from the department about its reversal or even deny the motion and sentence Flynn, a less likely scenario.
Sullivan at a 2018 hearing expressed "disgust" and "disdain" toward Flynn's criminal offense, saying: "Arguably, you sold your country out."
Trump, who had publicly attacked the case against Flynn and has frequently castigated the FBI, said he was "very happy" for his former aide, adding: "Yes, he was a great warrior, and he still is a great warrior. Now in my book he's an even greater warrior." Trump said in March he was considering a full pardon and accused the FBI and Justice Department of having "destroyed" Flynn's life and that of his family.
Flynn was one of several former Trump aides charged under former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation that detailed Moscow's interference in the 2016 US election to boost Trump's candidacy and contacts between Trump's campaign and Russia. Trump's longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone and his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort both were convicted and sentenced to multi-year prison terms.
The Justice Department said in its filing it was no longer persuaded that the FBI's Jan. 24, 2017 Flynn interview that underpinned the charges was conducted with a "legitimate investigative basis" and did not think his statements were "material even if untrue."
"A crime has not been established here. They did not have the basis for a counterintelligence investigation against Flynn at that stage," Barr said in a CBS interview. Asked about the fact that Flynn lied to investigators, Barr said: "Well, people sometimes plead to things that turn out not to be crimes."
In a filing, Flynn's lawyers agreed with the department's motion to dismiss the charges.
It marked the latest instance of the department under Barr, a Trump political loyalist, changing course under public pressure from the president to go light on one of his allies. In February, Barr and other senior department officials abandoned a tough sentencing recommendation by their own career prosecutors in Stone's case after Trump publicly lashed out at the prosecution team. The prosecutors quit the case in protest.
Shortly before the Flynn motion was filed on Thursday, career prosecutor Brandon Van Grack withdrew from the case and other related legal matters. He remains a Justice Department employee, a department spokeswoman said.
Trump critics have accused him of becoming emboldened after his February acquittal in his Senate impeachment trial and interfering in cases involving people close to him.
"Flynn PLEADED GUILTY to lying to investigators. The evidence against him is overwhelming," Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, wrote on Twitter. "The decision to overrule the special counsel is without precedent and warrants an immediate explanation."
"We have to be deeply skeptical that this is anything other than a further capturing of our criminal justice system for the benefit of the president," added Noah Bookbinder, a former prosecutor who now heads the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics advocacy group.
Seth Waxman, another former prosecutor now in private practice, added, "To have the case dismissed like this raises a lot of uncertainty for the institution of the Department of Justice."
Barr was appointed by Trump long after Flynn was charged. Barr three months ago named Jeffrey Jensen, a US attorney in Missouri, to review the case. Jensen said he "concluded the proper and just course was to dismiss the case."
Trump fired Flynn after only 24 days on the job when it emerged that Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence and the FBI about his Kislyak dealings.
According to the indictment, Flynn in December 2016 - after Trump won the election but before he took office - discussed US sanctions against Russia with Kislyak and asked him to help delay a U.N. vote seen as damaging to Israel, a move contrary to then-President Barack Obama's policies.
Flynn was supposed to cooperate with prosecutors under his plea deal. But he switched lawyers and said prosecutors had tricked him into lying about his Kislyak conversations.
Pressure from Trump allies to drop the charges intensified last week after partially redacted documents turned over to Flynn's defense showed more about the FBI's thinking before interviewing Flynn.
An unidentified FBI agent wrote: "What is our goal? Truth/admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?"
Flynn's allies have argued those documents show the FBI was out to get him.
"The government has concluded that the interview of Mr Flynn was untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into Mr Flynn - a no longer justifiably predicated investigation," the Justice Department wrote in Thursday's filing.
Prosecutors asked the judge in January to sentence Flynn to up to six months in prison, saying he "has not learned his lesson" and acts like "the law does not apply" to him.
His sentencing has been deferred several times.
Flynn previously headed the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency but he was forced out in 2014 in part due to his management style and opinions on how to combat Islamist militancy. He joined Trump's 2016 campaign and at the Republican National Convention led chants of "Lock her up," referring to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.