A federal appeals court ordered the judge overseeing the prosecution of Michael Flynn to dismiss of the case, a decision expected to bring to an end a years-long legal saga involving Donald Trump’s first national security adviser.
The ruling on Wednesday required Judge Emmet Sullivan to agree to a Department of Justice request to dismiss charges brought against Mr Flynn by former special counsel Robert Mueller.
The request by the justice department had sparked outrage among Democrats on Capitol Hill and prompted career prosecutors to allege that decisions on Trump-linked cases are increasingly driven by White House politics.
Mr Flynn had pleaded guilty twice to lying to the FBI about calls he had with the Russian ambassador shortly before Mr Trump took office.
In those conversations, Mr Flynn had urged the Kremlin to temper its response to sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama as punishment for Russia’s 2016 election meddling.
Earlier this year, William Barr, the US attorney-general, moved to dismiss the case against Mr Flynn, citing evidence that the FBI had not followed proper procedure when its agents interviewed Mr Flynn. Mr Barr went further in a media interview, calling Mr Flynn’s phone calls with the Russian ambassador “laudable”.
After Mr Barr moved for dismissal, the trial judge instead scheduled a hearing on the motion and appointed an outside expert to argue against it. That move prompted Mr Flynn’s lawyers to ask the federal appeals court in Washington to intervene.
Appeals court judge Neomi Rao, who was appointed by Mr Trump, said in Wednesday’s ruling that the trial judge did not have the authority to second-guess the justice department’s attempt to dismiss the case.
Ms Rao said in the ruling — a 2-1 decision joined by Judge Karen Henderson, an appointee of George HW Bush — that the question before the court was not about the justice department’s legal theories but simply its “constitutional discretion” to end criminal prosecutions.
“In the initiation and cessation of a prosecution, it is the Executive’s view of the law that matters, not ours, because of its authority over criminal charging decisions,” she wrote.
Judge Robert Wilkins, an appointee of Barack Obama, was the lone dissenter in the ruling, arguing that the trial judge should be allowed to make a ruling on the DoJ’s dismissal motion before the appeals court intervened.
He also argued that the move to dismiss Mr Flynn’s case after years of aggressive prosecution was “no mere about-face; it is more akin to turning around an aircraft carrier” and thus required further scrutiny.