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Explained: Who is Michael Flynn, and why has his pardon by Trump raised eyebrows?

The pardon effectively ended Flynn’s prosecution in the Russian election interference probe, which shadowed the Trump administration for years.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: November 29, 2020 10:04:36 am
Donald Trump, Michael Flynn, Donald Trump pardon Michael Flynn, Robert Mueller, Donald trump Russia probe, express explained, indian expressThen-presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with Michael Flynn during a town hall in 2016 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. (Photo: AP)

With less than two months until he leaves the White House, US President Donald Trump Wednesday exercised his powers under the country’s constitution to pardon Michael Flynn, his former National Security Advisor who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

The pardon effectively ended Flynn’s prosecution in the Russian election interference probe, which shadowed the Trump administration for years, and which the President tried hard to discredit. The clemency move comes months after Trump commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, another associate who had been convicted as part of the same investigation and was about to report to prison.

Trump described his granting of clemency to Flynn, which was widely expected, as his “Great Honor”. Flynn tweeted a Biblical reference, Jeremiah 1:19, which says, “’They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the Lord.”

Who is Michael Flynn?

Flynn, a retired three-star lieutenant general of the US Army and the former head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, had been an ardent supporter of Trump during the latter’s 2016 presidential campaign. Within days of Trump winning the election, Flynn was appointed to the key position of National Security Advisor, whose job is to advise the US President on defence and international affairs. Flynn agreed with Trump on several issues, such as promoting stronger ties with Russia and tackling ISIS threats.

How did Flynn get into trouble?

Ahead of the election in 2016, reports emerged that Russian military intelligence officers, working for an agency known as GRU, hacked into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Gmail account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager. Later, WikiLeaks released thousands of emails that Russian operatives had allegedly hacked from the DNC. This led to intelligence agencies probing Russian interference.

US intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered influence campaigns on Facebook and Twitter to mock then Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and promote Trump, even before the latter announced his run. Putin was seen as anti-Clinton, and was believed to have been drawn to Trump’s Russia-friendly stances.

Then in July 2016, before the election, the FBI opened a probe into connections between Trump associates and Russia. It probed one of Trump’s campaign advisers, George Papadopoulos — who, the FBI later said, knew in advance about Russia’s plans — as well as Trump associates Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Michael Flynn.

Soon after Trump won, Flynn discussed with the Russian ambassador the sanctions that President Barack Obama had imposed on Russia over its alleged election interference, and was accused of lying about the conversations to White House officials as well as federal investigators. He was dismissed from the NSA post after serving only 23 days, and criminal charges were pressed. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

What happened during Flynn’s prosecution?

After Flynn was fired, Trump asked then FBI director James Comey to end any probe that might have been initiated against Flynn.

In March 2017, Comey testified before a House committee that the FBI was probing possible links between the Trump campaign and the alleged Russian effort. In May, agitated with the FBI’s decision to go ahead with the probe, Trump fired Comey.

Days later, the Justice Department appointed Robert Mueller as Special Counsel, following demands by Democratic lawmakers. Mueller’s brief included investigating the extent of Russian interference, including possible involvement of Trump’s associates and Trump himself, and whether Trump had obstructed justice by firing Comey.

The Mueller report, which was filed in March last year, found that neither Trump nor any of his aides conspired or coordinated with the Russian government’s 2016 election interference, but indicted several members of Trump’s inner circle during the course of the investigation.

In December 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with the Russians–becoming the only White House official to be convicted during the Mueller probe– and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

In January this year, however, Flynn asked to withdraw his guilty plea, accusing prosecutors of acting in “bad faith”. Then in May, the US Justice Department sought to drop the charges against Flynn, after Trump and his allies built up political pressure to do so, and the department contended that federal investigators should never have interviewed Flynn in the first place. The effort was blocked, however, by the judge overseeing the case.

The case then lingered in the courts for months, until Trump finally decided to act on the issue himself.

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So, what happens now that Flynn has been pardoned?

The official pardon serves to erase Flynn’s conviction, thus forgiving him of the crimes he has committed. For years, Trump had spoken glowingly of Flynn, and had tried to discredit the latter’s prosecution as a left-wing ploy. In a statement on Wednesday, the White House described Flynn as “the victim of partisan government officials engaged in a co-ordinated attempt to subvert the election of 2016”.

Leading Republicans in both chambers of the US Congress have welcomed Trump’s decision, which is also expected to energise the party’s right wing supporters.

Democrat leaders have criticised the pardon as unethical. Nancy Pelosi, the party’s leader in the House, called it “an act of grave corruption and a brazen abuse of power.”

Jerry Nadler, a Democratic who leads the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement, “The President’s enablers have constructed an elaborate narrative in which Trump and Flynn are victims and the Constitution is subject to the whims of the president. Americans soundly rejected this nonsense when they voted out President Trump.”

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