“I thought you asked me whether or not I had anything to do with him being prosecuted,” Biden explained. “I’m sorry. ... I was aware that there was — that they asked for an investigation, but that’s all I know about it, and I don’t think anything else.”
The list from the National Security Agency was released a day after federal Judge Emmet Sullivan refused to rubber-stamp the Justice Department’s plan to dismiss the criminal case against Flynn, saying he would instead let the outside legal community weigh in about the move first.
On Monday, nearly 2,000 former Justice Department officials signed a letter calling for the attorney general to resign over what they describe as his improper intervention in the criminal case against Flynn.
It is possible that Sullivan could ask for additional information from the DOJ about its decision, including more details about why it was abruptly abandoning a case it had pursued in court since 2017, when Flynn pleaded guilty.
Grenell, meanwhile, said he alone made the decision to declassify the names.
“I declassified the enclosed document, which I am providing to you for your situational awareness,” Grenell wrote to GOP Sens. Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson, who made the documents public Wednesday.
Grenell described those on the list as ones who "may have received Lt. Gen Flynn's identity in response to a request processed between 8 November 2016 and 31 January 2017 to unmask an identity that had been generically referred to in an NSA foreign intelligence report," Fox News reported.
“Each individual was an authorized recipient of the original report and the unmasking was approved through NSA’s standard process, which includes a review of the justification for the request,” the document said. “Only certain personnel are authorized to submit unmasking requests into the NSA system. In this case, 16 authorized individuals requested unmasking for [REDACTED] different NSA intelligence reports for select identified principals.” The document added: “While the principals are identified below, we cannot confirm hey saw the unmasked information. This response does not include any requests outside of the specified time-frame.”
Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with then-Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition. Those calls were picked up by surveillance and later leaked to the press.
Attorney General William Barr has said that dropping the case against Flynn was in the interests of justice. The department says the FBI had insufficient grounds for interviewing Flynn about his “entirely appropriate” calls and that any imperfect statements he made weren’t material to the broader counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign.
Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who conducted an independent "investigation into the investigators" since March 2018, said in late 2019 that he found no evidence of political influence in the decision to investigate Michael Flynn, or that former President Barack Obama's FBI had illegally spied on the Trump campaign.
But the decision stunned former law enforcement officials involved in the case, including some who say the Justice Department is rewriting history and omitting key context.
Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said the FBI was obligated to interview Flynn about the Russian ambassador over sanctions imposed for election interference.
And because White House officials, including current Vice President Mike Pence, were inaccurately asserting that Flynn had never discussed sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, U.S. officials were concerned Flynn could be vulnerable to blackmail since Russia also knew what was discussed.
Judge: Flynn not entrapped
The same federal judge that on Tuesday refused to immediately rule on the dismissal of Flynn’s case also ruled in December 2019 that Flynn was not entrapped by the feds.
“The sworn statements of Mr. Flynn and his former counsel belie his new claims of innocence and his new assertions that he was pressured into pleading guilty to making materially false statements to the FBI,” Judge Sullivan wrote in a 92-page opinion that poured cold water on claims that FBI misconduct had been the root cause for Flynn’s lies to investigators.
Around this same time, Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who had been conducting an independent “investigation into the investigators” since March 2018, said he found no evidence of political influence in the decision to investigate members of Trump’s election team, or that Obama’s FBI had illegally spied on the campaign. Horowitz’s conclusions, however, were separate from another probe ordered by Barr in May 2019, and led by John Durham, which is now reportedly a criminal case.
What it all means
The Justice Department’s move to dismiss the criminal case against Flynn marks another step in his transformation, in the eyes of Trump and his allies, from rogue adviser to victim of runaway law enforcement.
The dismissal rewrites the narrative of the case that Trump’s own Justice Department had advanced for the last three years in a way that former law enforcement officials say downplays the legitimate national security concerns they believe Flynn posed and the consequences of the lies he pleaded guilty to telling.
It’s been swept up in a broader push by Trump and his Republican allies to reframe the Russia investigation as a “deep state” plot to sabotage his administration, setting the stage for a fresh onslaught of election-year attacks on past and present Democratic officials and law enforcement leaders.
“His goal is that by the end of this, you’re just not really sure what happened and at some gut level enough Americans say, ‘It’s kind of messy,’” said Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer.
Scrambling to manage the coronavirus and economic crash, Trump has been eager to shift the focus elsewhere. He has repeatedly called Flynn “exonerated” and pushed the development as evidence of what he deemed “Obamagate,” an allegation the previous administration tried to undermine him during the presidential transition.
Trump has tried to rally his supporters around the claim to revive enthusiasm among voters disappointed by his handling of the pandemic. He used the first 20 minutes of a recent Fox News interview to attack the Obama administration rather than offer updates on the pandemic.
Obama ignites social media
Former President Barack Obama ignited a social media storm over the weekend after a tape-recorded call surfaced of him criticizing Trump's response to the pandemic and also questioning Barr’s decision to drop charges against Flynn, saying “the rule of law is at risk.”
“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. 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. And when you start moving in those directions, it can accelerate pretty quickly as we’ve seen in other places,” Obama said.
Flynn actually pleaded guilty to charges of lying to the FBI, and not perjury as Obama mistakenly said in the call.
The move to dismiss the case against Flynn was a stunning reversal for one of the signature cases brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, with the Justice Department concluding that Mueller did not have “a legitimate investigative basis” to interview Flynn about his communications with the Russians.
News about Obama’s call swirled in the media over the weekend, with Trump retweeting several conspiracy theories accusing the former president “of the biggest political crime in American history.”
The theory trended on Twitter through the hashtag #OBAMAGATE.
It was the latest in a web of conspiracies circulating online that all claim rogue officials in the Obama administration broke the law to try to prevent Trump from becoming president.
Trump accuses Obama of crimes
Adding more fuel to the controversy was Trump’s Monday press briefing at the White House Rose Garden, where Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker pressed Trump about his tweets, some of which suggested Obama had committed crimes while in office.
Asked what crimes the former president had committed, Trump avoided any specifics.
“Obamagate!” Trump exclaimed, repeating the trending hashtag. “It’s been going on for a long time. Some terrible things happened. And you’ll be seeing what’s going on over the coming weeks.”
Rucker then asked, “What is the crime exactly that you’re accusing him of?”
“You know what the crime is,” Trump said. “The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”
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Trump’s advisers believe painting the previous administration as corrupt can distract from a pandemic crisis that has killed tens of thousands of people in the U.S., and is an effective line of attack against Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, according to four current and former administration officials and Republicans close to the White House not authorized to discuss the matter by name.
The hope is to revive some of the pre-pandemic arguments to cast Trump, even now as an incumbent, as the political outsider being attacked by the establishment.
Trump has increasingly lashed out on "the Russia hoax" in the year since Mueller's report did not directly accuse the 45th president of a crime or allege a criminal conspiracy between his campaign and Russia. Revelations since then have exposed problems with early days of the FBI's probe, including errors and omissions in applications to surveil an ex-Trump campaign adviser.
Mueller concluded that Russians interfered in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf, though the special counsel did not allege illegal coordination with Trump’s campaign. Mueller however did pointedly note that he was unable to exonerate Trump for potential obstruction of justice.
— Information provided by The Associated Press was used to supplement this report. This is a developing story.