Just hours before a House hearing into political influence at the Justice Department, a U.S. appeals court on Wednesday directed a federal judge to drop a criminal case against President Donald Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI.
President Trump has routinely defended Flynn and called for leniency.
Last month, Attorney General William Barr – in an extraordinary move - ordered the Justice department to dismiss its case against Flynn, despite the fact that Flynn pleaded guilty twice to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russia's then-ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.
In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled to prevent U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan from exercising his discretion on whether to grant the department's motion to clear Flynn.
The ruling blocks Sullivan from hearing arguments at a July 16th hearing from a retired judge whom he appointed as a "friend of the court" to argue against dropping the case.
Judge Neomi Rao, who was appointed by Trump, wrote that the district court’s actions would quote “result in specific harms to the exercise of the executive branch’s exclusive prosecutorial power.”
Judge Robert Wilkins, an Obama administration appointee, dissented. He said the Justice Department's flip-flop on the case raised questions that merited further scrutiny by the District Court.
Wednesday's ruling is likely to anger Democrats, who have accused Barr of improperly meddling in criminal cases to help benefit Trump's friends and political allies.
Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, was one of several former Trump aides charged under former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Moscow's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
After his guilty pleas and after cooperation with Mueller's team, Flynn switched lawyers to pursue a new scorched-earth tactic that accused the FBI of entrapping him.
A source familiar with the matter told Reuters that Wednesday's ruling will likely be appealed to a larger panel of the federal appeals court.