Obama said that the news about the situation has been “somewhat downplayed.”
“And the fact that there is no precedent that anybody can find for someone who has been charged with perjury just getting off scot-free,” Obama said. Flynn was charged with making false statements to the FBI, not perjury.
“That’s the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic—not just institutional norms—but our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk,” Obama added. “And when you start moving in those directions, it can accelerate pretty quickly as we’ve seen in other places.”
The comments were made during an online talk with people who worked in Obama’s administration and leaked to Yahoo News’s Michael Isikoff, one of the first reporters to report on the discredited Steele dossier.
Flynn pleaded guilty to one count of lying to FBI agents during an interview on Jan. 24, 2017. But he moved in recent months to withdraw the plea, alleging his former lawyers misled him on their conflict of interest and the FBI withheld a number of documents.
Documents released in recent days included handwritten notes from an FBI official questioning the motivation in interviewing Flynn and texts from an FBI agent who scrambled to keep the probe into Flynn open when it was about to be closed.
The Department of Justice, in asking for the dismissal of the case on Thursday, said the interview of Flynn was part of a probe that was a “no longer justifiably predicated investigation.” Attorney General William Barr said dropping the case was part of his efforts to restore an equal standard of justice in the United States. “It upheld the rule of law,” he said.
Obama’s comments drew criticism from some, including George Washington constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley.
The claim that “there is no precedent” was not correct, Turley said, citing a specific rule for the motion under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 48(a) and Supreme Court cases like Rinaldi v. United States that address the standard for such dismissals.
“The Justice Department has dismissed cases in the past including the Stevens case. That was requested by President Obama’s own Attorney General Eric Holder for the same reason: misconduct by prosecutors. It was done before the same judge, Judge Sullivan. How is that for precedent?” he said in a statement on Twitter.
Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who was part of the White House’s National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration, said that Obama’s comments were interesting.
“That Flynn was framed is now undeniable. Obama could choose to remain aloof and avoid personal association with this scandal. He’s chosen not to. Why?” he said on Twitter. Doran speculated that Obama is trying to keep people who worked in his administration united while U.S. Attorney John Durham probes the origins of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign.
Obama’s remarks came as newly released documents showed he knew details from Flynn’s calls, surprising one of the Department of Justice’s top officials.
Sally Yates, the deputy attorney general at the time, met with Obama, then-FBI Director James Comey, then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and then-Vice President Joe Biden on Jan. 5, 2017.
Yates told lawmakers in a 2017 interview that hadn’t been made public before this week that Obama told the group he “learned of the information about Flynn” and the lieutenant general’s discussions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Kislyak’s phone calls were being wiretapped by government officials, allowing them to hear what Flynn told him.
Yates “was so surprised by the information she was hearing that she was having a hard time processing it and listening to the conversation at the same time,” members of special counsel Robert Mueller team who interviewed her wrote in a report about the interview.
Obama nominated Flynn to be the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2012, a position Flynn took in July of that year.
Obama ousted Flynn in 2014. The stated reason was insubordination, including a reported refusal to follow guidance from superiors including James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence. Flynn has suggested the forced retirement stemmed from his position on Islamic terror groups, including ISIS, which Obama referred to as a “JV,” or junior varsity team.
“I felt that they did not want to hear the truth,” Flynn said in a January 2016 interview. In another interview, he said intelligence reports about a growing radical Islamist threat were being downplayed or expunged.
“That intelligence made it very clear that al-Qaeda and its affiliates were not on the run, but were in fact rapidly expanding. The number of terrorist attacks were on the rise, and Iraq was starting to burn again. So that was Obama’s big lie—that the enemy was on the run, and we were beating these guys,” Flynn said.
The fallout from the break extended into the 2016 election, when former Obama administration officials reportedly told Trump not to hire Flynn as his national security adviser.