Dropping of Michael Flynn Case Heightens Fear of Justice Dept. Politicization

WASHINGTON — President Trump and his supporters on Friday praised Attorney General William P. Barr’s decision to drop the prosecution of Michael T. Flynn, even as career law enforcement officials warned that the action set a disturbing precedent and Democrats accused the administration of further politicizing the Justice Department.

“Yesterday was a BIG day for Justice in the USA,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “Congratulations to General Flynn, and many others. I do believe there is MUCH more to come! Dirty Cops and Crooked Politicians do not go well together!”

But some rank-and-file prosecutors said they saw Mr. Barr’s action as politically motivated and damaging to the department’s credibility. Several compared the move to his forcing prosecutors in February to reduce a standard sentencing recommendation for Roger J. Stone Jr., a friend of Mr. Trump, saying it would leave a lasting mark on the department.

The Flynn decision comes as Mr. Trump and his allies have renewed their attacks on law enforcement officials, including the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray. With unemployment rates entering Great Depression territory and deaths from the pandemic mounting, Mr. Trump returned his attention to a familiar nemesis — the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether any of his campaign associates were involved.

Since taking office, Mr. Barr — an outspoken critic of the Russia investigation even before Mr. Trump appointed him — has voiced skepticism of the Flynn case. He laid the groundwork to dismiss it in February, when he appointed an outside prosecutor to review the matter. His intervention spared Mr. Trump any need to pardon Mr. Flynn, which the president had said he might do.

Democrats reacted with fury, accusing Mr. Barr of undermining the rule of law, and on Friday all 24 of them on the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to the Justice Department’s inspector general asking for an investigation.

In the Flynn case and many others, it said, “the current leadership of the department has taken extraordinary steps to protect the president’s allies and punish his enemies, real and imagined. In our view, these cases represent a systematic breakdown of impartial justice at the Department of Justice and suggest overt political bias, if not outright corruption.”

Many current and former federal prosecutors across the country said they were shocked by the Flynn decision.

The critics of Mr. Barr’s decision noted that no one who had worked on the case signed the legal paperwork effectively ending the Flynn prosecution except for Timothy J. Shea, the interim U.S. attorney in Washington. There were signs of haste. Mr. Shea mistakenly used the District of Columbia bar identification number of his predecessor.

While the ailing economy seemed to reduce the chances of a wave of resignations, some career officials quietly sounded out potential private sector jobs, fearing that their own cases could come under internal attack, said two people briefed on the matter.

“Bill Barr’s conduct is unprecedented and, what’s worse, unchecked,” said Christopher Hunter, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who worked at the Justice Department under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Nowhere was morale lower than the Washington office, where federal prosecutors were still reeling from the sudden departure earlier this year of the previous U.S. attorney, Jessie K. Liu, the installation by Mr. Barr of a close aide, Mr. Shea, as her interim successor, and Mr. Barr’s decision to intervene in Mr. Stone’s sentencing recommendation.

Mr. Barr had asked an outside prosecutor from St. Louis to vet the Flynn case. The Washington office’s newly installed top deputy pushed the Flynn team to disclose more documents to the defense, which frustrated lawyers in the office and the F.B.I., according to three people familiar with their thinking.

The department justified its motion to drop the Flynn case by telling a court that his admitted lying to the F.B.I. about his conversations with the Russian ambassador was no crime because the false statements were not “material” to any legitimate counterintelligence investigation used as a basis to question him.

“People sometimes plead to things that turn out not to be crimes,” Mr. Barr said in an interview on Thursday with CBS News.

The F.B.I. had initially decided to close an investigation into Mr. Flynn, having found no evidence that he was conspiring with the Russians. But because the investigation was still open as a paperwork matter, they used it as a basis to question him.

“For the attorney general to now suggest this interview was unusual or that the F.B.I. deviated from the usual protocol is wrong,” said Gregory A. Brower, a former F.B.I. official and Republican U.S. attorney in Nevada. “F.B.I. agents try to interview people in a way that gets them to talk in an unguarded way and, hopefully, to tell the truth.”

The Justice Department memo to the court ending the prosecution will be a gift to defense lawyers in future prosecutions of false statements, two current federal prosecutors who work in different parts of the country said in interviews.

They said they worried that defense lawyers would stymie prosecutions by challenging the origins of investigations — a particular worry in counterintelligence matters where there may be no criminal allegation — and citing the memo as a precedent to argue that the Justice Department had embraced a very narrow understanding of what counted as “material.”

Several other legal specialists said Mr. Barr’s intervention could still leave Mr. Flynn with legal exposure.

That is because Mr. Flynn was not just facing jeopardy for making false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. He was also accused of lying to the Justice Department about his paid work on behalf of the Turkish government when he submitted belated disclosures under the Foreign Agents Registration Act in March 2017.

Under the plea deal with the office of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, the Justice Department had agreed never to prosecute Mr. Flynn in connection with the Turkey-related project. Now, he could be exposed to charges about Turkey after all, legal specialists said.

In an interview with CBS News on Thursday, Mr. Barr was asked whether other charges could be brought against Mr. Flynn “for other actions he took during the presidential campaign or during the transition.” He replied only, “Well, no charges like that have been brought, and I’m not going to speculate about what charges there may be.”

The turmoil has also called into question the standing of Mr. Wray, the F.B.I. director Mr. Trump appointed after firing the former director, James B. Comey.

Some allies have told the president that Mr. Wray opposed the recent declassification of some Russia investigation-related material, a claim that Mr. Wray has denied, and Mr. Trump was said to have expressed anger about Mr. Wray after the Justice Department recently provided Mr. Flynn’s defense team with internal F.B.I. notes.

The president, who has complained about the F.B.I. director on and off since shortly after he appointed him in 2017, wanted to fire Mr. Wray, according to people familiar with this thinking. But some of Mr. Trump’s closest aides alerted Mr. Barr, who went to the White House to calm down the president, people familiar with the events said, and Mr. Trump agreed to hold off.

On Friday, Mr. Trump called into the “Fox & Friends” program on Fox News, lauding the end of the Flynn case, as well as denouncing the Mueller investigation as “corrupt.” Mr. Trump was asked why Mr. Wray had not disclosed internal F.B.I. notes and files about Flynn interview.

Mr. Trump gave a rambling response in which he appeared to say that Mr. Wray’s performance had been “disappointing” and “the jury’s still out with regard to that.” But he also said that while he had the power to fire senior law enforcement officials, he was deferring to his attorney general.

“I want Bill Barr to handle it,” Mr. Trump said, adding: “He’s done an unbelievable job. Bill Barr is a man of unbelievable credibility and courage. And he’s going to go down in the history books.”

On Thursday, Mr. Barr was asked by CBS News how he believed history would remember the Flynn decision. He quipped: “Well, history is written by the winner. So it largely depends on who’s writing the history.”

Reporting was contributed by Adam Goldman in Washington, and Maggie Haberman, Ben Protess and Nicole Hong in New York.