SALT LAKE CITY — Amid the coronavirus headlines dominating the home pages of mainstream news websites, a story that dates back to before President Donald Trump took office has appeared during the past month and heated up Wednesday: the government’s case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Attorney General William Barr now wants the case dismissed in a move that has agitated Democrats and some in the legal profession but also rallied supporters of a president facing reelection during a historic coronavirus pandemic.
The latest news in the saga was Wednesday’s release of a list of former senior Obama administration officials who may have been involved in efforts that “unmasked” Flynn. Unmasking is when intelligence officials, to better understand information, identify someone whose identity during surveillance was obscured to protect privacy.
The list of Obama officials declassified by Richard Grenell, the acting director of National Intelligence, has no direct bearing on the Flynn case, but Trump noted that presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was on the list. Others included then-FBI Director James Comey, then-CIA Director John Brennan and James Clapper, who was the director of National Intelligence.
“The unmasking is a massive thing,” Trump told reporters at a meeting Wednesday with governors of Colorado and North Dakota. “It’s one of the very big stories and I suspect you’ll have, if it’s possible, even bigger stories coming out.”
Also on Wednesday, the federal judge presiding over the Flynn case appointed a former prosecutor and judge to represent opposition to the government’s move to drop the case and to explore whether Flynn committed perjury in trying to withdraw his guilty plea, according to the New York Times.
Over Mother’s Day weekend, the president took to Twitter to characterize the Flynn case as “Obamagate,” accusing the previous administration of undermining him during the presidential transition and defending Flynn as “a warrior.”
Biden’s campaign downplayed the latest Flynn revelations.
“These documents have absolutely nothing to do with any FBI investigation and they confirm that all normal procedures were followed — any suggestion otherwise is a flat-out lie,” Andrew Bates, Biden’s director of Rapid Response said in a statement to media.
Biden accused Trump of using the Flynn investigation as a distraction from the pandemic, which has resulted in unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression as the nation tries to control the spread of COVID-19.
Flynn, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and ardent supporter of Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, pleaded guilty in late 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States during Trump’s presidential transition.
He struck a plea deal to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But Flynn’s sentencing in late 2018 was derailed when he realized he could face prison time and he later hired a new legal team and sought to withdraw his plea, according to an account on Law.com.
At the same time, Barr launched an investigation of his own into the origins of the Mueller investigation and ultimately a review of the Flynn investigation. Last week, Barr filed a motion in federal court to dismiss the case against Flynn, claiming the FBI didn’t have sufficient grounds to interview Flynn and that Flynn’s statements “even if untrue” were immaterial to the broader counterintelligence probe into the Trump campaign.
The move came after the disclosure of internal FBI records that Flynn’s attorney and other Trump allies have pointed to as evidence that the former national security adviser had been in a “perjury trap” to lie to federal agents.
But federal Judge Emmet Sullivan issued an order Tuesday effectively putting on hold the government’s move to drop the case. Sullivan, who heard Flynn’s guilty plea and his arguments to withdraw it, now wants to hear from outside groups before deciding whether to grant Barr’s motion.
Flynn attorney Sidney Powell objected to Sullivan’s order, arguing that the courts have no authority to permit a third party to “usurp the role of the government’s counsel” in prosecuting an individual in a criminal case.
“This travesty of justice has already consumed three or more years of an innocent man’s life — and that of his entire family,” Powell wrote in a motion filed after the judge’s order. “No further delay should be tolerated or any further expense caused to him and his defense.”
The Washington Post reported that Sullivan’s ruling to allow third-party arguments came the day after a team of Watergate prosecutors sought to file a friend of the court brief to give their legal arguments against Barr’s reversal of Flynn’s prosecution. They said they had a “unique perspective on the need for independent scrutiny and oversight to ensure that crucial decisions about prosecutions of high-ranking government officials are made in the public interest.”
They may not be the only ones filing amicus briefs with the court. On Monday, more than 2,000 former Justice Department and FBI officials called on Barr to resign.
“While it is rare for a court to deny the department’s request to dismiss an indictment, if ever there were a case where the public interest counseled the court to take a long, hard look at the government’s explanation and the evidence, it is this one,” they wrote in an open letter published online.
Meanwhile, partisanship played out on cable TV news outlets Wednesday, with Fox News trumpeting daylong headlines about the case, “List of Obama-era officials who sought to ‘unmask’ Flynn includes huge names at White House,” while competitor CNN kept its focus on the pandemic while its Flynn headlines focused on a decidedly different question: “Judge questions if Michael Flynn has perjured himself in his court case.”