Federal judge dismisses case against Michael Flynn after Trump pardoned him but emphasizes that the pardon doesn’t mean Flynn is innocent
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Former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images


  • The federal judge overseeing the Justice Department’s case against Michael Flynn issued a ruling Tuesday officially dismissing the case after President Donald Trump pardoned him.
  • However, US District Judge Emmet Sullivan said in his sharply-worded ruling that just because Trump pardoned Flynn does not mean the former national security advisor isn’t guilty of committing a crime.
  • “President Trump’s decision to pardon Mr. Flynn is a political decision, not a legal one,” Sullivan wrote. “Because the law recognizes the President’s political power to pardon, the appropriate course is to dismiss this case as moot.”
  • “The pardon ‘does not, standing alone, render [Mr. Flynn] innocent of the alleged violation,'” he wrote, adding that the Supreme Court has in fact recognized that accepting a pardon could be seen as a “confession” of guilt.
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The federal judge overseeing the US’s case against former national security advisor Michael Flynn officially dismissed  the case on Tuesday following President Donald Trump’s issuance of a pardon.

However, US District Judge Emmet Sullivan noted in his ruling that Flynn’s pardon does not mean he was innocent of lying to the FBI, a charge he pleaded guilty to in December 2017 and repeatedly acknowledged under oath.

“President Trump’s decision to pardon Mr. Flynn is a political decision, not a legal one,” Sullivan wrote. “Because the law recognizes the President’s political power to pardon, the appropriate course is to dismiss this case as moot.”

He added: “However, the pardon ‘does not, standing alone, render [Mr. Flynn] innocent of the alleged violation.'”

Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements as part of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Flynn admitted his guilt several times under oath and initially cooperated with prosecutors. But he later shifted course, fired his entire defense team, and hired a combative and controversial lawyer, Sidney Powell, who accused the FBI and Justice Department of entrapment and political persecution, and asked that a court dismiss the case against him.

Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller waits to testify before the House Intelligence Committee about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election in Washington, DC.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


Earlier this year, the Justice Department also made the highly unusual decision to try to toss out its own case against Flynn, prompting the resignation of one of the prosecutors working on it. The move drew widespread backlash as DOJ veterans accused Attorney General William Barr of using the department as a shield for Trump and his allies and a sword against his enemies.

Sullivan halted the DOJ’s efforts to drop the case and said that because of its political nature, he wanted third parties to weigh in as he considered the motion. In June, a three-judge appellate-court panel ordered Sullivan to toss out the Flynn case. But a 10-judge panel later reexamined the Flynn case and in August denied Flynn’s motion to dismiss it.

Three months later, Trump pardoned the former national security advisor.

Federal judge suggests Flynn’s acceptance of a pardon could imply a ‘confession’ of guilt

The president’s pardon power as outlined in the Constitution is extraordinarily broad and has few limitations other than that it cannot be applied to state crimes. He has the right to pardon anyone he wants, including friends and family members, and he can also issue preemptive pardons when someone hasn’t been charged or convicted of a crime.

Sullivan pointed to Trump’s involvement in the Flynn case in his Tuesday ruling, writing, “Mr. Flynn was serving as an adviser to President Trump’s transition team during the events that gave rise to the conviction here, and, as this case has progressed, President Trump has not hidden the extent of his interest in this case.”

The judge added that John Gleeson, a veteran former judge and prosecutor who weighed in on the Flynn case after the DOJ moved to dismiss it, pointed out that between March 2017 and June 2020, Trump tweeted or retweeted posts about the former national security advisor “at least 100 times.

President-elect Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, left; Jason Miller, a senior adviser, second from left; Boris Epshteyn, a spokesman for Trump, fourth from left, and Michael Flynn, Trump’s nominee for National Security adviser, fifth from left, listen as Trump speaks to members of the media after meeting with families of the victims of a Nov. 28 knife attack at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016.

Andrew Harnik/AP Photo


“This commentary has ‘made clear that the President has been closely following the proceedings, is personally invested in ensuring that [Mr.] Flynn’s prosecution ends, and has deep animosity toward those who investigated and prosecuted [Mr.] Flynn,'” Sullivan wrote.

He added: “And simultaneous to the President’s ‘running commentary,’ many of the President’s remarks have also been viewed as suggesting a breakdown in the ‘traditional independence of the Justice Department from the President.”

Sullivan also specifically pointed to Trump’s comments to The New York Times in December 2017 saying he had the “absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department.”

“Given this context, the new legal positions the government took in its” motion to toss out the Flynn case “raise questions regarding its motives in moving to dismiss,” he wrote, before going on to dismantle the government’s claim that Flynn’s false statements were not material to the Russia probe and that prosecutors no longer believe they can prove he “knowingly and willingly” lied beyond a reasonable doubt.

Flynn is one of several close allies and associates Trump has granted executive clemency to throughout his term. In July, he commuted the sentence of the Republican strategist Roger Stone, who was convicted of seven felony counts of making false statements, witness tampering, and obstruction.

In the waning days of Trump’s presidency, it’s been reported that he’s contemplating issuing pardons to as many as 20 people before leaving office, including his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, his three eldest children, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, first lady Melania Trump, Tiffany Trump, and Donald Trump Jr. before the presidential debate last week in Cleveland, Ohio.

JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images


This week, Axios reported that Trump is offering pardons to people who have not even requested them, with one source telling the news outlet that the president said he would pardon “every person who ever talked to me.”

Sullivan acknowledged on Tuesday that the president has almost unlimited pardon power, and he also said the scope of Flynn’s pardon, in particular, was “extraordinarily broad.”

Beginning with the landmark Supreme Court case, Marbury v. Madison, the high court “has long suggested that the President’s power to pardon is largely unqualified,” he wrote.

That said, the power does have some limitations. For one, a pardon must also be accepted in order to be effective.

However, getting a pardon also “does not necessarily render ‘innocent’ a defendant of any alleged violation of the law,” Sullivan wrote. “Indeed, the Supreme Court has recognized that the acceptance of a pardon implies a ‘confession’ of guilt.”

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