WASHINGTON — There have always been two sides to Michael T. Flynn. There was the rebellious teenager who surfed during hurricanes and spent a night in juvenile reformatory. Then there was the adult who buckled down, joined the Army and rose to become a three-star general.
Mr. Flynn was a lifelong Democrat who served President Barack Obama as a top intelligence officer. He also called Mr. Obama a “liar” after being forced out of the job and reinvented himself as a Republican foreign policy adviser.
Mr. Flynn criticized retired generals who used their stars “for themselves, for their businesses.” He appeared to do the same thing as a consultant.
But the two sides of Mr. Flynn were perhaps never so stark as in the criminal case against him that ended abruptly on Thursday to the astonishment of much of official Washington.
After pleading guilty in 2017 to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with a Russian diplomat, Mr. Flynn cooperated with the special counsel, saying he was “being a good soldier” and earning prosecutors’ praise. Then he recanted his confession and began what some allies saw as a reckless gamble to recast himself as an innocent victim of a justice system run amok.
That gamble paid off this week when, in an extraordinary reversal, the Justice Department abandoned his prosecution, saying he never should have been charged. Current and former federal law enforcement officials expressed disbelief and dismay, calling the move an unprecedented blow to the Justice Department’s integrity and independence. Former President Barack Obama, in remarks to former members of his administration, said he feared that “not just institutional norms, but our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk.”
Mr. Flynn transformed his case into a political cause that resonated in the conservative echo chamber. Led by his lawyer, Sidney Powell, and Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California and a close ally of the president’s, Mr. Flynn’s backers worked to wipe away the mistrust of some Republicans over his cooperation with law enforcement and turn him into a right-wing hero. Ms. Powell dug up documents she insisted showed that her client was as much of a victim of malfeasance by the F.B.I. as Mr. Trump had been.
Ultimately Attorney General William P. Barr joined the battle, granting Mr. Flynn another turnabout in a life filled with them.
A maverick in the military
Credit…Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images
Michael T. Flynn, 61, grew up in Middleton, R.I., the sixth of nine children. His father was an Army sergeant who became a banker. His mother ran a secretarial school before earning a law degree at age 63.
The family was squeezed into a three-bedroom, one-bathroom oceanfront cottage. Finances were tight.
“I was one of those nasty tough kids hellbent on breaking rules for the adrenaline high and hard-wired just enough not to care about the consequences,” Mr. Flynn wrote in his 2016 book, “The Field of Fight.” “Some serious and unlawful activity,” he wrote, led to his arrest.
He nearly flunked out of his freshman year at the University of Rhode Island, earning a 1.2 grade-point average. But the R.O.T.C. awarded him a three-year scholarship, and he found his calling in the military.
For much of Mr. Flynn’s career, former colleagues said, his mentors and superior officers let his talents flourish and kept his disruptive tendencies in check. In his book, he described himself as a rebel at heart. “I’m a maverick, an atypical square peg in a round hole,” he wrote.
As a young officer in 1983, he talked his way onto the military force that invaded Grenada. There, he dove off a 40-foot cliff to rescue two soldiers foundering in waters off the coast. He was scolded for the unauthorized rescue but also earned respect.
His partnership with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of American-led forces in Afghanistan at the time, shielded him from critics. General McChrystal also acted as a brake, ensuring that Mr. Flynn’s most outlandish ideas were confined to brainstorming sessions.
By the time Mr. Flynn arrived at the Defense Intelligence Agency as a three-star general in 2012, cracks were beginning to show. Mr. Obama had fired General McChrystal, a move that deeply distressed Mr. Flynn.
He executed a reorganization of the agency that is still in effect. But his chaotic management style and increasingly hard-edged views about counterterrorism gave colleagues pause, and his superiors viewed him as insubordinate, former Pentagon officials said. His defenders said the Obama administration bristled at his tough line on Iran.
His two-year term was not extended, thrusting him into the civilian world at age 55, an embittered man.
Mr. Flynn had flourished with the special operation forces in Iraq where his colleagues could “tolerate, adjust, and manage what was functional and dysfunctional with Mike Flynn,” said Douglas H. Wise, a former C.I.A. officer who became Mr. Flynn’s deputy at the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“In the political arena,” Mr. Wise said, “he no longer had this kind of adult supervision.”
Pivoting to the right
As a military man, Mr. Flynn seemed oblivious to wealth, un-self-consciously parking his 1986 Buick Park Avenue in a Pentagon parking lot dotted with Cadillacs and Lexuses.
But as a civilian, he founded a consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group, that attracted high-paying clients. In a decision that appalled some friends, he agreed to give a speech in 2015 to RT, Russia’s state-controlled television network, for about $45,000. He was seated at the head table next to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
The next year, he pulled in at least $1.8 million from private intelligence and security services, consulting and speeches. About $530,000 came for work to discredit an enemy of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Mr. Flynn did not register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent, as required under lobbying disclosure laws, until the following spring when he was under federal scrutiny.
Mr. Flynn’s politics seemed to shift even more than his finances. He heavily criticized the Obama administration, especially over Iran policy.
His pragmatic approach of old gave way in private conversations with reporters and students to almost hostile views to Islam. In his book, he called for the destruction of the Iranian government. Publicly, he sneered at Mr. Obama for avoiding the term “radical Islam”and implied that Mr. Obama was a secret Muslim.
“I’m not going to sit here and say he’s Islamic,” he told one of the country’s largest anti-Muslim groups, ACT for America, in 2016. But, he said, the president “didn’t grow up as an American kid,” and held values “totally different than mine.”
Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, called Mr. Flynn “right-wing nutty.” But his views resonated with Mr. Trump. Their initial mid-2015 meeting, scheduled for a half-hour, lasted 90 minutes and prompted Mr. Flynn to begin advising the campaign.
He enthralled conservatives at the Republican National Convention in July 2016 when he led a chorus of “Lock her up!” chants against Hillary Clinton.
Within weeks, Mr. Flynn became the subject of an F.B.I. counterintelligence inquiry into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia. His code name was “Razor.”
By January 2017, with Mr. Trump’s inauguration imminent, the F.B.I. had decided that insufficient evidence existed that Mr. Flynn conspired with the Russians, wittingly or unwittingly.
But the F.B.I.’s interest was rekindled when agents learned that in late December during the presidential transition, Mr. Flynn had advised the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, that the Kremlin refrain from reacting to the Obama administration’s imposition of sanctions for Russia’s election interference. Mr. Flynn also asked that Russia delay or defeat an upcoming United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel.
Those phone calls were problematic because Mr. Flynn was attempting to intervene in foreign policy as a private citizen, a potential violation of a federal law — albeit one rarely enforced.
Mr. Flynn also told the incoming vice president, Mike Pence, that he had not discussed sanctions with Russia. Mr. Pence repeated that assertion on television, raising concerns at the Justice Department that Mr. Flynn had lied to him and that the Russians could use the truth to blackmail Mr. Flynn.
At the F.B.I., his file had lingered in abeyance, not yet formally closed. “Our utter incompetence actually helps us,” Peter Strzok, an F.B.I. counterintelligence agent, texted a bureau lawyer. Because of a bureaucratic oversight, agents would not have to justify a reopening of the inquiry.
Four days after the inauguration, the F.B.I. sent two agents to question Mr. Flynn at the White House. Caught off-guard, Justice Department officials “hit the roof” when they found out, one said.
Mr. Flynn told the agents he had not asked Russia to act in any specific way in response to the U.N. resolution or the imposition of sanctions. Those denials did not save his job: He was soon forced to resign.
Even then, Mr. Trump tried to protect him from further investigation. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” he told James B. Comey, then the F.B.I. director whom Mr. Trump later fired.
That December, Mr. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his conversations with the Russian official and pledged to cooperate with the inquiry by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into Russia’s 2016 election interference.
Rebellion and resurrection
About a year later, Mr. Flynn had second thoughts. After a federal judge warned that he might not be sentenced to probation, he fired his legal team. His legal bills had amounted to nearly $3 million, forcing him to sell his Alexandria, Va., house and move to his Rhode Island home.
In a court filing, Mr. Flynn said he had only pleaded guilty because his lawyers advised him to. “One of the ways a person becomes a three-star general is by being a good soldier, taking orders, being part of a team and trusting people who provide information and support,” he wrote.
Even before she formally took over Mr. Flynn’s defense last June, Ms. Powell put together a public relations and legal campaign to exonerate him, making the case on Capitol Hill and in conservative media.
In appearances on Fox News, Ms. Powell linked her client’s plight to other examples of what she saw as government overreach. She also stitched Mr. Flynn’s story to conspiracy theories about career government officials’ efforts to undermine Mr. Trump, both in court filings and conversations with journalists.
Mr. Nunes, a longtime friend of Mr. Flynn and close ally of Mr. Trump, joined Ms. Powell in a full-throated defense. Together, they reoriented the view of Mr. Flynn on the right from an object of suspicion for cooperating with the special counsel into a conservative cause.
“Sidney Powell brilliantly shifted the narrative and shrewdly found new allies in the House Freedom Caucus and Fox News commentators,” said Michael Pillsbury, an informal adviser to Mr. Trump and a scholar at the Hudson Institute.
In a letter to Mr. Barr, Ms. Powell accused prosecutors and investigators of withholding documents, improperly leaking to the media and seeking to entrap her client.
Her evidence included what Mr. Flynn’s backers called a smoking gun: handwritten notes from Bill Priestap, then the head of F.B.I. counterintelligence. “What is our goal?” he asked before the White House interview. “Truth/admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?”
The bureau’s defenders said the notes proved the F.B.I.’s impartiality, not its bias. But they provoked a fresh wave of indignation from the right.
The campaign shifted Mr. Trump’s thinking, as well. Initially he seemed inclined to believe that Mr. Flynn had done something wrong — at least by lying to Mr. Pence. More recently, he has privately voiced regrets about firing him.
By the time the Justice Department dropped the charges against Mr. Flynn on Thursday, Mr. Trump was calling the investigators who pursued Mr. Flynn “human scum.” The next day, he praised Mr. Nunes’s relentless efforts to take them on.
“Devin Nunes, he wouldn’t stop,” Mr. Trump said. “He saw it before anybody.”
The president has begun musing about rehiring Mr. Flynn. But some advisers to Mr. Trump said they viewed Mr. Flynn as too much of a loose cannon for the campaign trail or the White House.
In the end, that side of Mr. Flynn may prevent him from finding that final bit of redemption.
Adam Goldman contributed reporting from Washington, and Maggie Haberman and Jeremy W. Peters from New York.