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The dozen belated disclosures that turned the tide in Michael Flynn’s case

Long-withheld evidence of innocence revealed the FBI never thought it had a case against former Trump national security adviser.

November 26, 2020 11:19pm

Updated: November 27, 2020 8:57am

What a difference three years makes.

During Thanksgiving 2017, retired three-star general Michael Flynn was somberly making plans to head to court and plead guilty to a charge of lying to the FBI during a late January 2017 interview, his reputation in tatters and his bank account drained.

A day before Thanksgiving this year, a jubilant Flynn took a phone call from President Trump to learn his conviction had been erased by a full pardon.

In between, a legal drama of epic proportions unfolded, one that exposed deep flaws with the FBI, the Justice Department and a news media industry that had been sold a story with many conflicting secrets.

The dramatic reversal of the Flynn case began with the determination of a new lawyer, Sidney Powell, who took over the former Trump national security advisor’s defense and relentlessly fought to unseal evidence of innocence the government had long tried to conceal.

Here are the 10 biggest (and belated) disclosures that Powell forced to light that turned the tide in a case that became a symbol of prosecutorial excesses during the Russia collusion case.

  1. Case Closure Memo. Weeks before the FBI sought to interview Flynn, the lead FBI agent who had investigated the retired general for five months wrote a memo to close the investigation on Jan. 4, 2017, concluding he had found "no derogatory" evidence that Flynn committed a crime or posed a national security threat. FBI management then ordered the closure to be rescinded and pivoted toward trying lure Flynn into an interview. 
  2. Agent’s ‘Get Trump’ Confession. In an extraordinary interview with prosecutors this fall, the FBI agent who led the Flynn case, William Barnett, admitted there was never evidence of wrongdoing by the retired general or Russian collusion by Trump, but the probe was kept open by Special Counsel Robert Mueller because his team was obsessed with punishing the president.  "With respect to Flynn’s [phone call] with the Russian ambassador in December 2016 BARNETT did not believe Flynn was being directed by TRUMP. BARNETT did not believe FLYNN had any additional information to provide SCO. Barnett believed the prosecution of Flynn by SCO was used as a means to 'get TRUMP,’” the interview stated.
  3.  Not a Russian agent. A Justice Department memo exonerated Flynn of Russia collusion on Jan. 30, 2017, nearly a year before he pled guilty. "The FBI did not believe Flynn was acting as an agent of Russia," the DOJ memo states.
  4. Playing Games.’ The rush to interview Flynn in the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing created significant concerns for Assistant FBI Director for Counterintelligence William Priestap, who poignantly questioned whether the bureau was “playing games” with the interview strategy. "What is our goal?,” Priestap wrote in his handwritten notes that suddenly turned up as evidence in spring 2020. “Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?"
  5. Infamous Obama White House meeting. Ordinarily, the White House steers clear of any involvement in FBI criminal investigations. But notes and records that turned up earlier this year show the FBI briefed President Obama and Vice Preident Joe Biden on Jan. 5, 2017 on the state of the Flynn case. The president gave an instruction for the FBI to put its best people on continuing the probe while Biden suggested considering using the Logan Act to prosecute Flynn, the memos suggest.
  6. No deception. The FBI agents who interviewed Flynn, including the now-fired Peter Strzok, did not believe Flynn intended to lie or be deceptive in his interview. "Strzok provided his view that Flynn appeared truthful during the interview," a memo from Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's team stated
  7. Logan Act threat wasn't real. DOJ officials immediately did not believe Flynn could realistically be prosecuted under the Logan Act for his conversations with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe testified he was told such a prosecution was a "long shot," and former Assistant Attorney General Mary McCord "said that upon learning of Flynn’s phone calls with Ambassador Kislyak, a Logan Act prosecution seemed like a stretch to her,” DOJ memos say. 
  8. DOJ heartburn. Senior Justice officials expressed concern and alarm at the way the FBI was treating Flynn, including trying to interview him without the normally required notification to the Trump White House. Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates expressed significant concern that White House officials weren't being advised. “The interview was problematic from Yates’ perspective because, as a matter of protocol and courtesy, the White House Counsel’s Office should have been notified beforehand," a DOJ memo stated
  9. Disguising a required warning. FBI officials debated whether they could avoid, disguise or slip in the required FBI admonition against lying to agents at the start of Flynn's interview to keep him off guard. "It would be an easy way to just casually slip that in," FBI lawyer Lisa Page texted during the discussions
  10. FBI Deception. James Comey bragged in a videotaped interview that he authorized the FBI to try to conduct a Flynn interview without the proper notifications and protocol, hoping to catch Flynn and the new Trump White House off guard. In other words, they didn't follow procedure or treat Flynn like others when it came to due process. Comey said the tactic was "something I probably wouldn't have done or maybe gotten away with in a more organized administration
  11. Interview Reports Edited. According to evidence DOJ disclosed to Powell earlier this year, FBI officials subsequently edited the original Flynn interview report. After Strzok and fellow special agent Joe Pientka interviewed the Trump adviser, Pientka wrote the original interview report, known as a 302, then Strzok heavily edited it, so much so that he worried he was “trying not to completely re-write” the memo. Then FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who neither attended the interview nor is an agent, edited it again, according to the DOJ evidence. And then that version of the 302 was never given to the court. Instead, a substitute summary of the interview written months later was presented as official evidence, an act current and former FBI officials told me was extraordinarily unusual. 
  12. Flynn's visit with Putin was approved, not nefarious. In fact, his December 2015 visit to Moscow was cleared by his former employer, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and he received a defensive briefing before he went to Russia and debriefed with U.S. intelligence after he returned