The interview report says that while Barnett viewed the investigative steps taken as “legally justified,” the so-called predication — or factual basis — for the probe into Flynn was “not great.” Barnett said his view of the overall Trump-Russia probe was that it was based on “supposition upon supposition.”
The official public release of such candid assessments from inside a federal investigative team is extraordinarily rare, although it is now becoming commonplace in connection with the Flynn case.
In submitting the Barnett interview to U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, prosecutors indicated they believe Barnett’s account buttresses the highly unusual and controversial decision Attorney General William Barr made in May to abandon the false-statement charge Flynn pleaded guilty to in 2017 as a part of a plea deal with Mueller’s office.
The release of Barnett’s interview — conducted by DOJ attorneys on Sept. 17 — suggests the department is still actively investigating the roots of the Flynn probe in advance of a looming hearing on Tuesday where Sullivan is scheduled to hear arguments for and against the department’s motion to drop the case.
Since both the government and Flynn want the case dismissed, a former judge appointed by Sullivan as a friend-of-the-court is scheduled to argue in favor of leaving Flynn’s guilty plea in place and proceeding to sentence him on the charge.
In late 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about his December 2016 calls with Russia’s then-ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. After cooperating for over a year with Mueller, who took over the FBI’s Russia probe after Trump fired bureau Director James Comey in May 2017, Flynn reversed course and accused the FBI and Justice Department of egregious misconduct, seeking to rescind his guilty plea.
When Barr essentially backed that effort in May, Justice Department veterans and Capitol Hill Democrats decried the move as a politically motivated attempt by Barr to protect an ally of the president and discredit a probe Trump has long characterized as a “witch hunt” and a “coup.”
The interview summary itself is a series of contradictions. Though Barnett voices deep doubts about the motivations of some of his colleagues, he ultimately agreed that Flynn lied to the FBI. He also indicated that he believed the other investigations led by the Crossfire Hurricane team were meritorious, though he says he often offered more benign theories about actions taken by Trump and his team when other agents were inclined to view them in a more incriminating light.
Barnett also said that Flynn told Mueller’s team during one session after his plea deal that Trump may have been aware of his interactions with Kislyak. Barnett attributed that, however, to Flynn telling agents what they wanted to hear and that he reversed himself when Barnett pressed him for clarity.
“During one interview of Flynn … one of the interviewers asked a series of questions including one in which Flynn’s answer seemed to indicate Trump was aware of [redacted] between Flynn and the Russian Ambassador,” the summary reads. “Barnett believed Flynn’s answer was an effort to tell the interviewers what they wanted to hear. Barnett had to ask the clarifying question of Flynn who then said clearly that Trump was not aware of [redacted.]”
Barnett also indicated he wasn’t fully read in on all of the evidence or facts in the case and at one point sought to remove himself from it before he was convinced by colleagues like Peter Strzok, one of the lead FBI agents handling the case, to join Mueller’s investigative team. In late 2016, Barnett also repeatedly urged the FBI to conduct an interview with Flynn, characterizing it as a formality and an “easy layup” before closing the investigation. His superiors resisted at the time though, with some worrying it might alert Flynn to their investigation.
Senior FBI agents conducted the interview of Flynn on Jan. 24, 2017 without advising Barnett until it was over.
The Barnett interview also provides a glimpse into tensions between agents and prosecutors on the Mueller team. Barnett says that when he initially briefed Mueller prosecutor Jeannie Rhee on the Flynn probe, she seemed deeply dubious about Barnett’s view that there was little evidence that Flynn was in the pocket of the Russians.
“Barnett thought Rhee was obsessed with Flynn and Russia and she had an agenda,” the report says. “Rhee told Barnett she looked forward to working together. Barnett told Rhee they would not be working together.”
The interview of Barnett was conducted by a team led by the prosecutor Barr tapped to review the Flynn case, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri Jeffrey Jensen. It’s unclear why the interview took place just days before the Flynn court hearing, which was delayed from May due to an unsuccessful effort by Flynn and the Justice Department to head it off. Another prosecutor, U.S. Attorney for Connecticut John Durham, is conducting a broader inquiry into the overall Trump-Russia probe, including leaks and other potential misconduct.
Earlier Thursday, Flynn’s team posted another set of documents from the Justice Department that contained hundreds of internal FBI messages between agents and other officials discussing the Flynn case. The filing accompanying the messages alleges that they show agents raising grave doubts about the validity of the Flynn investigation at various points.
Flynn’s team alleges that one January 2017 message — an exchange in which two FBI officials suggest their colleagues were all obtaining liability insurance ahead of Trump’s inauguration — indicated it was related to their fears about the handling of the Flynn investigation. But Barnett, in his interview, contradicted that claim, suggesting it was unlikely to be related to the Flynn probe because it predated the public disclosure of the matter in new reports. Barnett also said he regularly encourages colleagues to obtain professional liability insurance.
Flynn’s legal team may also have misinterpreted another set of messages in which they say “FBI analysts discussed the preference of some agents for a Clinton Presidency.” A fuller set of messages included with the filing, however, makes clear that they referred to a suggestion that the Russians — not FBI officials — might have preferred Hillary Clinton since she was a known entity, while Trump presented more of a “wild card.”
In the fuller exchange, the agents debate the issue, with one replying, “I don’t know man, the hooks Russia has into big T are pretty deep.”
The decision of Flynn’s attorneys to file more of the documents they’ve obtained from prosecutors appears to conflict with an order Judge Sullivan issued in April that said Flynn’s team should not file any more material provided by DOJ until the department announces it has completed a review of the Flynn matter Barr ordered earlier this year.
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