National Security

Live coverage: Sally Yates testifies before Senate Judiciary panel

Greg Nash

The Hill will be providing live updates as two former senior Obama administration officials testify Monday afternoon during a Senate hearing on Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. They will be making their first public appearances related to the various congressional probes into the meddling.

The testimony of former acting Attorney General Sally Yates is particularly anticipated.

Yates, whom President Trump fired for her refusal to defend his travel ban in court, is expected to tell lawmakers that she warned the White House about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia, which would contradict the Trump administration’s account.

{mosads}Also testifying is former National Intelligence Director James Clapper, who signed on to the public assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin intended to influence the election in Trump’s favor.

Follow along with The Hill’s live coverage below.

DNC slams Republicans for “partisan bias” during hearing

6:21 p.m.

The Democratic National Committee, a victim of the alleged Russian hacking discussed in the hearing, released a statement saying Republican senators “terrifyingly abdicated their responsibilities” by not asking enough questions about Russia.

“Republicans in Congress remain committed to stonewalling the investigation on Trump’s behalf. When faced with an extremely grave national security threat, multiple Republican senators were so blinded by partisan bias that they could only muster questions entirely unrelated to Russia.  Then, they emptied the room early,” the statement read.

“Republican senators have terrifyingly abdicated their responsibility to protect Americans and that is exactly why there is no choice but to demand an independent, 9/11 style commission to investigate Russia’s attack on our democracy.”

Though the hearing largely saw a divide between the Democrats and Republicans in the scope of questions, with the former asking about Russia, the latter asking about the leaks investigation and both asking about Michael Flynn, the Republicans were no monolith. Sens. Grassley and Graham, both Republican, did ask about Russia. 

Graham has Clapper reiterate that he has unmasked Trump official, asks for more help

5:47 p.m.

Graham wound down the hearing by repeating what the subcommittee learned and the next steps forward. That included asking Clapper for subsequent help to figure out how many people had the ability to unmask citizens in section 702 surveillance, and having Clapper reiterate that he had asked for the unmasking of a Trump associate in the past.

Sen. Al Frankin (D-Minn.) offered a brief statement proposing curtailing shell companies used to funnel money around international sanctions. 

Graham then adjourned the meeting.

What else must we do?

5:31 p.m.

Sen. Chuck Grassly (R-Iowa) asked Yates and Clapper whether the United States had done enough to deter future instances of hacking and what else the country needs to do. Neither witness thought the country had gone far enough.

“I think they’re coming back,” said Yates.  

Clapper advocated for new sanctions, as well as better education.  

“The most important thing that needs to be done here is to educate the electorate,” he said. 

Yates argued that the U.S. needed to harden local election systems and better aid citizens in weeding out fake news. 

“It also wouldn’t hurt to prosecute a few folks,” said Yates. 

Clapper: White House vetting typically more thorough than security clearance process

5:13 p.m.

Clapper said that the White House vetting process is typically “far, far more invasive and far, far more thorough” than the security clearance process. 

Earlier in the day, Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly defended the vetting of Mike Flynn by referring to his passing his security clearance under President Obama. 

Clapper has been vetted for positions in both Democratic and Republican White Houses. 

Later asked if, in his personal opinion, it was a good idea to bring Flynn to various meetings with foreign diplomats, Clapper said, “I don’t think it was a good practice.”

Kennedy: Who appointed you to the Supreme Court

4:43 p.m.

In a prosecutorial line of questions from Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), Yates was once again asked to defend her conduct surrounding the travel ban.

“I don’t mean any disrespect,” the freshman senator said. “Who appointed you to the United States Supreme Court?”

In a subsequent line of questioning on leaking, Kennedy demanded to know if Clapper had ever leaked “classified or unclassified information.”

Clapper, nonplussed, replied, “Unclassified is not leaking.”

Laughter broke out across the hearing room.

Yates: McGahn understood that Flynn should be taken seriously

4:40 p.m.

Yates said that in her discussions with McGahn, she left assuming that the McGahn understood the severity of the situation with Flynn.

“Mr. McGahn demonstrated that he understood it and was taking it seriously.” 

Later she added that she would have further addressed the issue if she had remained at the Department of Justice – Yates was removed over her refusal to enforce the travel ban at the same time as the meetings in late January. 

“If I remained at the Department of Justice and was under the impression that nothing had been done I would have raised it again with the White House.”  

Clapper: WikiLeaks not journalism 

4:32 p.m.

Clapper explained why, by his definition, WikiLeaks is not journalism. 

“When a journalist…deliberately puts the country in jeopardy,” he said, it crosses a “red line.”

He later said WikiLeaks had harmed American interests “in the past,” which might be meant as dismissive towards the sites current series of CIA leaks. 

Yates disagrees with the characterization of meetings as a ‘Heads up’

4:20 p.m.

Sean Spicer once stated that to the McGahn meetings with Yates was an informal “heads up.”

Yates, asked whether or not that was an accurate characterization, disagreed. Instead, she said, she was there to tell the administration they needed to take actions. 

“We were there to tell the white house about something we were very concerned about,” she said. 

Yates: Administration overstated the normalcy of Flynn actions

4:13 p.m.

Sen. Dick Durbin (R-Ill.) asked Yates if she could make sense of Sean Spicer’s comment about Flynn “There was nothing in what General Flynn did, in terms of conducting himself, that was an issue.”

“He didn’t reach that conclusion from the conversation with us,” she said. 

Yates: Travel ban ‘unlawful’

4:09 p.m.

Yates derided President Trump’s travel ban as “unlawful,” standing by her decision to order the Justice Department not to defend the initial order in court.

She was ultimately fired by Trump over her resistance to the February executive order, which halted travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.

“In looking at what the intent was of the executive order — which was derived in part of an analysis of facts outside of the face of the order — that is part of what led to our conclusion that it was not lawful,” she said, pressed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

In one tense moment in which Cornyn appeared to mishear Yates’ testimony, she took the mic to clarify, “Senator, I did not say it was lawful, I said it was unlawful.”

Cornyn called it “enormously disappointing” that Yates overruled the White House Office of Legal Counsel’s determination that the travel ban was legal because she disagreed with the policy.

“Let me make one thing clear. It was not purely as a policy matter,” Yates replied, calmly arguing that she was doing what she had promised Cornyn and other Judiciary Committee lawmakers she would do during her confirmation hearings.

“You specifically asked me if the president asked me to do something that was unlawful and unconstitutional, would I say no,” she said.

“I looked at this, I made a determination that I believed that it was unlawful. I also thought it was inconsistent with the principles of the Department of Justice. And I said no.”

Clapper says he unmasked Trump associate

Clapper acknowledged that he did at one time unmask a Trump associate, but could not discuss the incident further in an unclassified setting. 

Unmasking, the process of having the name of a United States citizen reintroduced into surveillance reports and transcriptions, is a common process. Nearly 2,000 names were unmasked in 2016. Unmasking is required in instances where an intelligence agency can show a valid intelligence reason to know the name of a citizen who is not the subject of the surveillance. That citizen either would have communicated with a foreign citizen under investigation or was discussed by that foreign citizen. A request is filed with the agency who conducted the surveillance, and that agency determines if the reasons for unmasking are valid. 

Yates claimed she had seen documents with unmasked Trump associates. 

White House Council Donald McGahn discussed prosecution of Flynn with Yates

3:39 p.m.

In the second of a series of meetings between Donald McGahn and Sally Yates to discuss former national security advisor Mike Flynn’s potential dishonestly, McGahn asked about the prospect of prosecution against Flynn. 

Yates said that the Department of Justice had notified the White House about Flynn’s dishonesty for a variety of reasons, including the potential for Russian compromise, and the general problem of dishonesty with the American people. 

Yates said that those reasons didn’t stick in the first meeting, with McGahn asking “Why does it matter if one White House official lies to another White House official?” in the eyes of the DOJ during the second. McGahn also asked about the “applicability of certain criminal statutes.”

Yates, in a later question, clarified that McGahn likely did not so much worry that Flynn had committed a crime in regards to asking about prosecution as he did wonder why the DOJ was interested,

McGahn asked to see the underlying evidence about Flynn, which he was given permission to do, but had not by the time Yates left the DOJ. 

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is still unaware of any evidence linking the Trump campaign to Russia. 

3:37 p.m.

The statement came in answering a question from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

Clapper had just testified that he was unaware of the investigation, having given the FBI director discretion not to inform him of intelligence investigations. Clapper noted that even after the DNI was asked to work with the FBI on classified and unclassified reports about Russian interference, he might still not be informed about any evidence, because the evidence might have been conclusive enough to draw any conclusions.  

Yates: Flynn conduct ‘created a compromise situation’

3:22 p.m.

Yates warned White House counsel Don McGahn about the true nature of Flynn’s call with Kislyac because she was concerned that Russia would be able to blackmail the national security advisor, she confirmed Monday.

“We weren’t the only ones that knew all of this,” Yates said, referring to Flynn misleading of Vice President Pence about the call.

“The Russians also knew about what General Flynn had done. The Russians also knew that General Flynn had misled the vice president and others.

“This was a problem because not only do we believe that the Russians knew this, but that they likely had proof of this information — and that created a compromise situation, where the national security advisor essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians,” she said. 

That account had previously been described in news reports.

Yates also said that officials were concerned that the American people had been misled.

Clapper unaware of any FBI investigation during his tenure

3:01 p.m.

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said during his opening testimony that by his own policy FBI Director James Comey did not inform him of intelligence investigations against members of the Trump team. 

Clapper said that he allowed FBI directors leeway to decide whether or not to inform the office of the DNI of ongoing investigations due to their sensitivity. Comey, in this case, took him up on the offer. 

In a House Intelligence hearing, FBI Director Comey announced that the FBI began an investigation of Trump campaign officials’ connections to Russia prior to the election. 

Yates signals limited testimony on Flynn

2:59 p.m.

Yates right off the bat will signal to lawmakers that her testimony about any warning she gave the Trump White House about Flynn’s contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyac may be limited.

According to a written copy of her opening statement, Yates will tell the committee that she is not authorized to discuss “deliberations within DOJ or more broadly in the Executive Branch, particularly on matters that may be the subject of ongoing investigations.”

“I take those obligations very seriously, and I appreciate the Subcommittee’s shared interest in protecting classified information and preserving the integrity of any investigations the Department of Justice may now be pursuing,” Yates said.

The FBI’s investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia is ongoing.

Yates was expected to give damaging testimony about notifying the Trump administration that Flynn might have been vulnerable to compromise after misleading both the administration and the public about discussing sanctions with Kislyac during the transition.

The administration has described the meeting as a “heads up” and in March reportedly sought to block her from testifying in a previously-scheduled appearance before the House Intelligence Committee, arguing that her discussions with the White House were protected by “presidential communications privilege.”

Graham: Party’s should agree an attack on one is an attack on all

2:45 p.m.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chair of the subcommittee overseeing the hearing, proposed political parties make a NATO-like agreement that overseas actors attacking one would be an attack on all. 

“It should be an article 5 agreement between both major parties – all parties – when a foreign power intereferes in our elections, it doesn’t matter who they targeted. We’re all in the same boat,” he said. 


Obama warned Trump about Flynn after election: reports
12 p.m.

Multiple news outlets are reporting that then-President Obama warned then-President-elect Trump last November not to hire Flynn, whom Trump fired within the first month of his presidency.

The new reports contradict the Trump administration’s efforts to shift blame for Flynn’s downfall onto the Obama administration.  

Last month, White House press secretary Sean Spicer defended Flynn’s hiring by noting the Obama administration had granted him the highest level of security clearance.

In a tweet earlier Monday, Trump tweeted, “General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama Administration – but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that.”

Flynn reportedly misled Trump officials about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador during the White House transition, quickly turning him into a political liability.


Trump outlines administration’s priorities for hearing 
11:55 a.m

Hours before the hearing even began, Trump posted two tweets signaling the administration’s priorities in grilling Yates and Clapper.

“General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama Administration – but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that,” Trump wrote in the first tweet.

“Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Council,” he wrote in the second.

Yates is expected to give damaging testimony during the hearing about notifying the Trump administration that Flynn might have been vulnerable to compromise after misleading both the administration and the public about discussing sanctions with Russia during the transition.

The administration described the meeting as a “heads up.”

Flynn was not fired for another 18 days after the press caught wind of his discussions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. 

Flynn has since been revealed to have violated rules on retired military officials accepting money from foreign governments and not disclosing those payments on official paperwork. Trump’s tweets appear to be laying groundwork for a GOP defense against allegations of lax vetting of Flynn.

Yates is only one of several officials who would have access to information on Flynn, including anyone present at the meeting informing the White House, their staffs, anyone involved in the investigation or their staffs.

But refocusing Yates’s testimony toward a leak investigation rather than Russia or Flynn would play into a White House narrative of alleged persecution dating back well into the Obama administration. While Flynn was granted the highest security clearance by the Obama administration, he was also fired by Obama.

Tags Dick Durbin John Cornyn Lindsey Graham
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