Run-up to Flynn sentencing tinged with unexpected drama

WASHINGTON (AP) — Michael Flynn may have given extraordinary cooperation to prosecutors, but the run-up to his sentencing hearing Tuesday has exposed raw tensions over an FBI interview in which the former national security adviser lied about his Russian contacts.

Flynn's lawyers have suggested that investigators discouraged him from having an attorney present during the January 2017 interview and never informed him it was a crime to lie. Prosecutors shot back, "He does not need to be warned it is a crime to lie to federal agents to know the importance of telling them the truth."

The mere insinuation of underhanded tactics was startling given the seemingly productive relationship between the two sides, and it was especially striking since prosecutors with special counsel Robert Mueller's office have praised Flynn's cooperation and recommended against prison time. The defense arguments spurred speculation that Flynn may be trying to get sympathy from President Donald Trump or may be playing to a judge known for a zero-tolerance view of government misconduct.

"It's an attempt, I think, to perhaps characterize Flynn as a victim or perhaps to make him look sympathetic in the eyes of a judge — and, at the same time, to portray the special counsel in a negative light," said former federal prosecutor Jimmy Gurule, a University of Notre Dame law school professor.

Until the dueling memos were filed last week, the sentencing hearing for Flynn — who pleaded guilty to lying about a conversation during the transition period with the then-Russian ambassador — was expected to be devoid of the drama characterizing other of Mueller's cases.

Prosecutors, for instance, have accused former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of lying to them even after he agreed to cooperate. Another potential target, Jerome Corsi, leaked draft court documents and accused Mueller's team of bullying him. And George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign adviser recently released from a two-week prison sentence, has lambasted the investigation and publicly claimed that he was set up.

Flynn, by contrast, has been notably silent even as his supporters advocated a more combative stance. He met privately with investigators 19 times and provided cooperation so extensive that prosecutors said he was entitled to avoid prison altogether.

Then came his sentencing memo.

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Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn
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Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn
National security adviser General Michael Flynn delivers a statement daily briefing at the White House in Washington U.S., February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn arrives at the Trump Tower for meetings with US President-elect Donald Trump, in New York on November 17, 2016.

(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Retired United States Army lieutenant general Michael T. Flynn introduces Republican Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump before he delivered a speech at The Union League of Philadelphia on September 7, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Trump spoke about his plans to build up the military if elected. Recent national polls show the presidential race is tightening with two months until the election.

(Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, at podium, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attend a campaign event with veterans at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Ave., NW, where Trump stated he believes President Obama was born in the United States, September 16, 2016.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 01: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer (L) yields the briefing room podium to National Security Adviser Michael Flynn February 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. Flynn said the White House is 'officially putting Iran on notice' for a recent missile test and support for Houthi rebels in Yemen. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, prepares to testify at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Dirksen Building titled 'Current and Future Worldwide Threats,' featuring testimony by he and James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (C) arrives prior to a joint news conference between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn boards Air Force One at West Palm Beach International airport in West Palm Beach, Florida U.S., February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
National security adviser General Michael Flynn arrives to deliver a statement during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington U.S., February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (L) arrives at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 10: (AFP OUT) White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (R) walks down the West Wing Colonnade following a bilateral meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe February 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. Trump and Abe are expected to discuss many issues, including trade and security ties and will hold a joint press confrence later in the day. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 02: (L-R) SCAD Dramatic writing professor Chris Auer, Producer Sandra Leviton, Executive producer and writer Michael Flynn, Tv literary agent Jeff Greenberg and Literary manager and producer Kaila York speak on stage during the 'Inside the Writers Room' event on Day One of aTVfest 2017 presented by SCAD on February 2, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for SCAD)
Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (ret.), National Security Advisor Designate speaks during a conference on the transition of the US Presidency from Barack Obama to Donald Trump at the US Institute Of Peace in Washington DC, January 10, 2017. / AFP / CHRIS KLEPONIS (Photo credit should read CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, U.S. national security advisor, attends a swearing in ceremony of White House senior staff in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017. Trump today mocked protesters who gathered for large demonstrations across the U.S. and the world on Saturday to signal discontent with his leadership, but later offered a more conciliatory tone, saying he recognized such marches as a hallmark of our democracy. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Michael Flynn walks out after a morning worship service on Inauguration day at St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, DC on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (R), talks with National Security Advisor Michael Flynn inside of the inaugural parade reviewing stand in front of the White House on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Donald Trump was sworn in as the nation's 45th president today. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, White House national security adviser-designate, center, stands in an elevator at Trump Tower in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. Donald Trump is slated to meet with AT&T Inc.'s top executives on Thursday to discuss the company's proposed $85.4 billion bid for Time Warner Inc., according to people familiar with the matter. The president-elect has said he opposes the deal. Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Donald Trump's National Security Adviser Gen. Michael T. Flynn (R) arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. In today's inauguration ceremony Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (ret.) and National Security Advisor Designate and Ambassador Susan Rice, National Security Advisor during a ceremonial passing of authority while participating in a conference on the transition of the US Presidency from Barack Obama to Donald Trump at the US Institute Of Peace in Washington DC, January 10, 2017. / AFP / CHRIS KLEPONIS (Photo credit should read CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images)
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Although Flynn and his attorneys stopped short of any direct accusations of wrongdoing, they took pains to note that Flynn, unlike other defendants in Mueller's investigation, was not informed that it was against the law to lie to the FBI. They suggest the FBI, which approached Flynn at the White House just days after Trump's inauguration, played to his desire to keep the encounter quiet by telling him the quickest way to get the interview done was for him to be alone with the agents — rather than involve lawyers.

They also insinuate that Flynn, of Middletown, Rhode Island, deserves credit for not publicly seizing on the fact that FBI officials involved in the investigation later came under scrutiny themselves. Former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who contacted Flynn to arrange the interview, was fired this year for what the Justice Department said was a lack of candor over a news media leak. Peter Strzok, one of the two agents who interviewed Flynn, was removed from Mueller's team and later fired for trading anti-Trump texts with another FBI official.

Mueller's team has sharply pushed back at any suggestion that Flynn was duped, with prosecutors responding in their own sentencing memo Friday that there was no obligation to warn Flynn against lying.

"A sitting National Security (Adviser), former head of an intelligence agency, retired Lieutenant General, and 33-year veteran of the armed forces knows he should not lie to federal agents," prosecutors wrote.

Former FBI Director James Comey criticized the broadsides on the Flynn investigation during a Monday appearance on Capitol Hill, saying, "They're up here attacking the FBI's investigation of a guy who pled guilty to lying to the FBI."

Trump has made no secret that he sees Mueller's investigation as a "witch hunt" and has continued to lash out at prosecutors he sees as biased against him and those who help them. He's shown continued sympathy for Flynn, though, calling him a "great person" and asserting — erroneously — that the FBI has said he didn't lie.

Flynn has not tried to retract his guilty plea, and there's every indication the sentencing will proceed as scheduled.

Arun Rao, a former Justice Department prosecutor in Maryland, said the defense memo is striking because it's "inconsistent" with Flynn's cooperative stance so far.

"You also wonder in this very unusual situation," he said, "whether it is a play for a pardon."

It's also possible that at least some of the defense arguments may resonate with U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who directed prosecutors to produce FBI records related to Flynn's interview. That included portions of the notes from Flynn's Jan. 24, 2017, FBI interview, which is at the center of his case.

In response to Sullivan's order, prosecutors publicly filed a redacted copy of the FBI interview notes late Monday evening. The notes show that FBI agents interviewed Flynn about his contacts with Russia, including his past trips to the country and his conversations with Sergey Kislyak, then Russia's ambassador to the U.S.

Last year, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about the contents of his conversations with Kislyak during the presidential transition.

The notes show Flynn told agents he didn't ask Kislyak not to escalate Russia's response to sanctions imposed by the Obama administration in response to election interference. But Flynn admitted in court papers last year that he did.

The notes also show Flynn told agents he didn't ask Kislyak to see if Russia would vote a certain way on a United Nations resolution involving Israeli settlements. But in court papers last year he admitted that he did ask Kislyak to see if Russia would vote against or delay the resolution. Court papers show Flynn made that request at the direction of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.

It's unclear what impact, if any, the notes will have on Sullivan's sentencing decision.

Sullivan was the judge in the Justice Department's botched prosecution of now-deceased Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska. He dismissed the case after prosecutors admitted that they withheld exculpatory evidence, prompting the judge to say that in nearly 25 years on the bench, "I've never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct that I've seen in this case."

In an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal last year, Sullivan said the case inspired him to explicitly remind prosecutors in every criminal case before him of their obligation to provide defendants with favorable evidence. He says he has encouraged colleagues to do the same.

But while Sullivan has proved especially sensitive to hints of government overreach, nothing about the Flynn case comes close, said Gurule, the law professor.

"To portray him as somehow an innocent dupe, as somehow just this innocent victim in the process, this suggestion that there was a perjury trap — it's an absurd allegation," he said.

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Follow Eric Tucker and Chad Day on Twitter: https://twitter.com/etuckerAP and https://twitter.com/ChadSDay

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Read the Flynn FBI interview notes: http://apne.ws/xfm8IsO

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