The Justice Department quietly closed without charges the investigation into leaks of likely classified information about intercepted phone calls between retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and a Russian envoy to the press in early 2017.
Michael Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, signed off on closing the inquiry into the disclosure of the December 2016 calls between President Trump’s first national security adviser and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the recommendation of prosecutors in Washington, D.C., a personal familiar with the investigation told the New York Times. The report Tuesday, the final full day of Trump’s administration, said that the inquiry, code-named Operation Echo, looked into Obama administration officials with access to the sensitive contents of the discussions, but “ultimately found no wrongdoing.”
After just a few weeks on the job, Flynn resigned as White House national security adviser role in February 2017 amid the controversy that followed the Washington Post reporting his December 2016 contacts with Kislyak. Flynn, 62, fought to dismiss the government’s case against him throughout 2020 after he pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to investigators about those conversations during the presidential transition period. The U.S. government intercepted Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak, after which now-fired FBI special agent Peter Strzok and FBI agent Joseph Pientka interviewed him on Jan. 24, 2017 about the talks.
The New York Times reported in April that now-special counsel John Durham, a Connecticut federal prosecutor picked by former Attorney General William Barr to review the Trump-Russia investigation, was looking into media leaks, which dominated the Trump transition period and the early days of the Trump administration. He was reportedly looking into a Jan. 12, 2017 article in the Washington Post by columnist David Ignatius, which said Flynn “cultivates close Russian contacts” and cited a “senior U.S. government official” who revealed Flynn had talked to Kislyak on Dec. 29, 2016, the same day former President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian officials. Ignatius also raised the possibility that Flynn had violated the Logan Act, a rarely enforced law, which some Obama officials considered using against Flynn.
A follow-up article by the Washington Post on Feb, 9, 2017, revealed likely-classified details from Flynn’s monitored calls with Kislyak, citing “nine current and former officials” who were in “senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions confirmed on Fox News in 2018 that he believed these “leaks of classified documents” were “a violation of the law.” Sessions said the Justice Department was “pursuing it aggressively.” Sessions left the Justice Department in November 2018 and was succeeded by Barr.
A list of officials who received information in response to unmasking requests, declassified by former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell in the spring of 2020, shows that 16 Obama officials made 49 unmasking requests related to Flynn between Election Day 2016 and Jan. 31, 2017. The National Security Agency document shows 39 Obama officials who received the unmasking intelligence.
Durham had reportedly reviewed former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland’s FBI interviews during special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, scrutinizing what she and other witnesses discussed about the Washington Post story.
McFarland, who briefly served under Flynn, published a book in 2020, Revolution: Trump, Washington, and “We the People,” in which she wrote that the Ignatius article “set off a chain of events that helped lead to the Russia probe.” She is mentioned in Mueller’s report 150 times and was interviewed by the FBI in summer 2017. She initially denied talking to Flynn about any discussions he had with Kislyak about sanctions in December 2016, but reportedly revised her statement to say Flynn may have talked to her about the sanctions after his December 2017 guilty plea contradicted her. She told CPAC in February 2020 that Mueller’s investigators “wanted me to plead guilty for a crime I didn’t commit.”
Last week, the Justice Department released more than 100 pages of somewhat redacted FBI interview notes Flynn’s discussions with Mueller’s investigative team in 2017 and 2018.
After a two-year investigation, Mueller concluded the Russian government interfered in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” but “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Trump issued Flynn a pardon just before Thanksgiving.
Flynn agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation, though the defense team that negotiated the plea deal was fired. Flynn’s new lawyer, Sidney Powell, began arguing in 2019 that “there never would’ve been a plea to begin with” if Flynn knew how much information the Justice Department was hiding from him. Both Flynn and Powell were recently banned from Twitter amid a crackdown on promotion of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory.
Former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by Trump in May 2017, admitted he took advantage of the chaos in the early days of Trump’s administration when he sent FBI agents over to the White House to talk to Flynn. Handwritten notes from FBI official Bill Priestap on the day the FBI interviewed Flynn show him ask, “What’s our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?”
The New York Times also reported Tuesday that the Justice Department also closed its inquiry into Republican Sen. Richard Burr, scrutinized for stock sales made near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. A DOJ spokesperson told the Washington Examiner that he could “confirm matter is closed.” Burr, who stepped down as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that “the Department of Justice informed me that it has concluded its review of my personal financial transactions conducted early last year.”
The outlet also said Sherwin signed off on closing without charges an inquiry into Walid Phares, a Lebanese-born conservative commentator who advised both Mitt Romney’s and Trump’s presidential campaigns on foreign policy, whom Mueller apparently investigated related to his connections to the Egyptian government.
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