Trump Renews Criticism of Flynn Case, Signaling Possible Pardon

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(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump renewed his blistering critique of the FBI’s conviction of Michael Flynn, joining a chorus of right-wing commentators who latched onto newly unsealed court documents to say the former national security adviser was framed.

In a series of tweets and retweets on Thursday, the president renewed speculation that he’s actively considering pardoning Flynn, who has become a cause celebre among Trump’s political base.

The return to Flynn’s case comes as Trump weathers a decline in his popularity in key battleground states. Polls show that Americans have increasingly soured on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has now sickened more than 1 million people and killed 61,000 in the U.S.

Asked later Thursday at the White House whether he’d pardon Flynn, Trump said “hopefully we won’t have to get there,” and added that he “would certainly consider” bringing him back into the administration.

In the middle of his tweets about Flynn, Trump added: “FAKE POLLING, just like 2016 (but worse)!”

In recent weeks, Trump has revisited his 2016 campaign strategy by turning more toward his base. He has blamed China for the coronavirus, after praising its handling of the pandemic earlier this year. He threatened Iran and issued an executive order to temporarily halt all immigration into the U.S. Pardoning Flynn, who remains popular with Trump voters, would be the latest gesture.

Trump signaled a pardon could be in the making, retweeting his son, Donald Trump Jr., who said: “Not only should general Flynn’s charges be dropped immediately but the treasonous actors who set him up should be in jail!!!”

He also tweeted about another convicted longtime confidante and right-wing celebrity, Roger Stone.

And he retweeted Bill Mitchell, a conservative media commentator who often peddles conspiracy theories.

Mitchell responded: “With his retweets this morning, President Trump is showing us, the base, who fight for him and America every day in the trenches, that he loves, supports and honors our work.”

Flynn served as the president’s national security adviser for just three weeks before he was fired for lying about his contacts with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S. at the time. He pleaded guilty in December 2017 and agreed to cooperate.

He has since become a symbolic figure among right-wing activists, who mistrust the government and what they call the “deep state” that Trump has accused of trying to undermine his presidency from within federal institutions.

The court documents released Wednesday show that federal agents who interviewed Flynn during the early days of the Russia investigation knew they might catch him lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador and mused about getting him fired. Flynn argues the evidence supports his request to have the criminal case tossed out.

Mimi Rocah, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan who isn’t involved in the case, said it isn’t unusual for federal agents to go into an interview with evidence of potential wrongdoing as they did with Flynn, and that the backlash to the unsealed documents amounts to “faux outrage.”

“Strategizing about whether the goal should be for him to admit that misconduct or lie, so that this security threat could more easily be removed from his position, was not only a common and permissible practice for law enforcement, it was in the best interests of national security,” said Rocah, who is running as a Democrat for district attorney in Westchester County, New York.

Flynn had agreed to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election but then switched to a more combative stance, which may have been calculated to win a pardon.

Pardoning Flynn risks turning public attention back to questions about Russian efforts to help Trump win in 2016. While Muller’s probe didn’t find enough evidence to charge Trump’s campaign with conspiring with Russia, he cited 10 episodes in which Trump’s actions could be construed as obstructing the investigation.

A decision to intervene in Flynn’s case would be sure to come under intense criticism from Democrats, as have his previous pardons. Last year, the president granted clemency to three members of the military facing allegations of war crimes. Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who was convicted of criminal contempt for violating a federal court order prohibiting his department from racially profiling Latinos.

The president also pardoned Scooter Libby, the chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was convicted of obstruction of justice during the investigation into the public unmasking of CIA officer Valerie Plame. In 2018, Trump pardoned conservative author Dinesh D’Souza, who pleaded guilty to campaign fraud.

Federal prosecutors reversed course several times on their recommendation for Flynn’s sentence.

In 2018, the government recommended Flynn receive probation based on his cooperation with Mueller’s Russia probe. The U.S. changed its position and sought jail time after Flynn became more combative in response to Mueller’s probe.

In January, prosecutors made a surprising reversal, backing Flynn’s request for probation even through he failed to provide substantial assistance to their investigations.

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