A retired US judge has been appointed to argue against the US justice department’s efforts to drop a criminal case against Michael Flynn and address whether Donald Trump’s former national security adviser should be held in contempt of court for perjury.
Mr Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia’s then-ambassador to the US, and then later sought to withdraw his plea. He was still awaiting sentencing last week when US prosecutors filed a motion with the federal court in Washington to dismiss the charges.
But Emmet Sullivan, the federal judge overseeing the Flynn case, signalled this week that he would not immediately dismiss the charges against the retired three-star general and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The judge said late on Tuesday that he would “at the appropriate time” allow outside groups and experts to file “friend of the court” briefs arguing for or against the dismissal of charges.
On Wednesday evening, Judge Sullivan said in an order that he was appointing John Gleeson, a retired federal judge and current partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, to “present arguments in opposition to the government’s motion to dismiss”.
He also asked Judge Gleeson to address why Mr Flynn “should not be held in criminal contempt for perjury”.
Judge Gleeson was a federal judge in the eastern district of New York for more than two decades before he left the bench in 2016 to go into private practice. He was previously a federal prosecutor in numerous high-profile cases, including the murder and racketeering convictions of mafia bosses John Gotti and Victor Orena.
Judge Sullivan has not held back in criticising Mr Flynn in the past, telling the former national security adviser as he postponed his sentencing in 2018: “Arguably you sold your country out. Arguably this undermines everything this flag over here stands for.”
The Flynn case has been politically fraught, with Mr Trump claiming the general was unfairly targeted by the Obama administration and Democrats calling for an inspector-general to investigate the handling of the case by William Barr, US attorney-general.
Richard Grenell, a staunch Trump loyalist who serves as acting director of national intelligence, on Wednesday declassified a list of Obama-era officials who requested to “unmask”, or identify, Mr Flynn in intelligence documents. The list of officials included Joe Biden, former vice-president, who is now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and James Comey, the former FBI director.
Unmasking is widely seen as routine procedure in order for officials to understand the context of intelligence reports.
Republican senators Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson, who requested the information, published the documents on Wednesday afternoon.
“We are making this public because the American people have a right to know what happened,” Mr Grassley and Mr Johnson said in a statement. “The records are one step forward in an important effort to get to the bottom of what the Obama administration did during the Russia investigation.”
Mr Trump’s re-election campaign quickly seized on the documents, with Brad Parscale, the Trump 2020 campaign manager, accusing Mr Biden of being involved “in the set-up” of Mr Flynn “to further the Russian collusion hoax”.
Mr Trump, who has previously suggested he was open to pardoning Mr Flynn, later told reporters at the White House that unmasking “is a massive thing”.
“I watched Biden yesterday on Good Morning America being interviewed by one of your colleagues, George Stephanopoulos, and he said he knew nothing about anything,” Mr Trump said. “And then it gets released today that he was a big unmasker. So how do you know nothing if you’re one of the unmaskers?”