WASHINGTON — Shortly after admitting guilt to a federal judge in December 2017 for lying to the F.B.I., Michael T. Flynn issued a statement saying what he did was wrong, and “through my faith in God, I am working to set things right.”
It turns out that the only higher power that Mr. Flynn needed was Attorney General William P. Barr.
Mr. Barr’s extraordinary decision to drop the criminal case against Mr. Flynn shocked legal experts, won President Trump’s praise and prompted a career prosecutor to quit the case. It was the latest in Mr. Barr’s steady effort to undo the results of the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel. Mr. Barr has portrayed his effort as rectifying injustice, and the president more bluntly as an exercise in political payback.
In his decisions and public comments over the past year, Mr. Barr has built an alternate narrative to the one that Mr. Mueller laid out in his voluminous report. Where the special counsel focused on Russia’s expansive effort to interfere in the 2016 election, the Trump campaign’s openness to it and the president’s determination to impede the inquiry, Mr. Barr has focused instead on the investigators. He has suggested that they were unleashed by law enforcement and intelligence officials bent on bringing political harm to Mr. Trump.
Mr. Barr has also mischaracterized the findings of the Mueller investigation, questioned why it began in the first place, used legal maneuvers to undo its courtroom successes and opened his own investigation by a handpicked prosecutor that could bring criminal charges against former American officials who played a part in setting the original inquiry into motion. Mr. Mueller and Mr. Barr, once close friends, have been like two students standing shoulder to shoulder at a blackboard: what one has diligently written down, the other has tried to steadily erase.
In an interview on Thursday with CBS News, Mr. Barr said he considered the Flynn case to be “part of a number of related acts — and we’re looking at the whole pattern of conduct.” (The same day, Mr. Trump called it “just one piece of a very dishonest puzzle.”)
Recent disclosures about the F.B.I.’s handling of the Flynn case raise questions about why the bureau’s leadership sent agents to interview Mr. Flynn without coordinating with top Justice Department officials, the latest in a series of revelations about F.B.I. abuses in politically charged investigations in recent years. Mr. Barr, however, even suggested that a theory of the case embraced by Mr. Mueller and his team might have made them blind to the facts.
“One of the things you have to guard against, both as a prosecutor and I think as an investigator, is that if you get too wedded to a particular outcome and you’re pursuing a particular agenda, you close your eyes to anything that sort of doesn’t fit with your preconception,” he said. “And I think that’s probably the phenomenon we’re looking at here.”
But when Mr. Mueller made his findings public, many criticized him for doing the opposite. His conclusions, especially about whether Mr. Trump had committed any obstruction of justice offenses by impeding the inquiry, were dense, burdened by legalese and appeared to reflect a tortured debate among the special counsel’s team. They delivered no easy sound bite that the president’s opponents could seize upon — allowing Mr. Trump to distort the judgments by calling them a vindication of his behavior.
The Mueller report “bends over backwards” to show that the special counsel’s team considered all of the legal and political ramifications of investigating a sitting president, said Matthew J. Jacobs, a former federal prosecutor and now a partner at Vinson & Elkins.
“It gives the benefit of the doubt to the subject of the investigation that in any quote unquote normal criminal case doesn’t happen and wouldn’t exist,” said Mr. Jacobs, who once worked for Mr. Mueller at the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco.
Mr. Barr’s decision to drop the charges against Mr. Flynn was “unlike anything I’ve seen before,” Mr. Jacobs said, adding that he saw no evidence whatsoever “that General Flynn was set up or entrapped.”
In an unsolicited memo he wrote to the White House while still a lawyer in private practice in 2018, Mr. Barr unspooled his thoughts about what he called a “fatally misconceived” obstruction of justice theory the special counsel was reportedly pursuing as part of his investigation. Mr. Trump named him attorney general months later, but during his confirmation hearing, he pledged not to interfere with the work of Mr. Mueller and his team.
Mr. Barr drew criticism for the way he characterized Mr. Mueller’s findings last year in a four-page letter that — for weeks — served as the public’s only picture of Mr. Mueller’s 22-month investigation. Mr. Mueller privately wrote to the attorney general, saying he had mischaracterized the findings — a letter Mr. Barr described as “snitty” — and over time, Mr. Barr has repeatedly tried to emphasize the harm done to the investigative targets of the F.B.I. and the special counsel’s office.
Mr. Barr’s handling of the Mueller findings prompted a stinging rebuke in March from a Republican-appointed federal judge, who said the attorney general put forward a “distorted” and “misleading” account of the findings and lacked credibility on the topic.
Mr. Barr has long insisted that he works independently of the White House, and in February, he said that Mr. Trump’s public comments about the Justice Department sometimes made it “impossible” for him to do his job. Those comments came after Mr. Barr and other top department officials intervened to try to reduce a prison sentence in another case brought during the Mueller investigation: that of Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime friend of the president’s who was convicted of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstruction of justice in a bid to thwart a congressional inquiry that threatened Mr. Trump.
The president has made it clear both to aides and foreign officials that he sees Mr. Barr as a crucial ally in the grinding battle against his perceived enemies. Last July, the day after Mr. Mueller’s congressional testimony seemed to lower the curtain on a more than two-year drama that had imperiled the Trump presidency, Mr. Trump was on the phone with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine asking him to assist the attorney general in an investigation “to get to the bottom of” how the Russia investigation began.
“As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller,” the president said. The requests to Mr. Zelensky helped form the basis of an impeachment case against Mr. Trump in the ensuing months.
Weeks after that phone call, Mr. Barr was on a plane to Rome with John Durham — the prosecutor leading the Justice Department’s investigation into the origins of the Russia investigation — to seek evidence from Italian officials that might bolster a conspiracy theory long held by Mr. Trump: that American intelligence and law enforcement officials plotted with American allies to try to prevent him from winning the presidency in 2016.
They did not appear to find any evidence. It remains uncertain, however, what Mr. Durham will find over his investigation, expected to finish sometime this year, and what effect it will have on the legacy of the Mueller investigation.
The president, of course, has not waited to pass judgment. On Thursday, the day the Justice Department dropped the criminal charges against Mr. Flynn — the first top White House official to have been ensnared in the Russia investigation — Mr. Trump was on the phone with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.
Mr. Trump boasted that the call came at an opportune time. Things are “coming in line showing what a hoax this whole investigation was — it was a total disgrace.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said he told Mr. Putin, “if you see a lot of things happen over the next number of weeks.”