In a riveting hearing, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates offered dramatic testimony Monday about warning the White House that ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn had put himself at risk of being blackmailed by the Russians.
In her first public testimony since she was fired by President Trump, Yates provided a detailed timeline of her intervention in the Flynn case.
She told a packed Senate hearing room of warning Trump’s top lawyer in February that Flynn had created a “compromise situation” that could allow him to be blackmailed.
“To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security adviser compromised by the Russians,” said Yates, who was appointed by President Obama but was asked by Trump’s team to stay on in the initial weeks of his administration.
Yates did not explicitly confirm the specifics of Flynn’s actions — citing classified information — but said that her decision to warn the White House stemmed from “press accounts of statements that had been made by the vice president and other high-ranking White House officials about Gen. Flynn’s conduct that we knew to be untrue.”
Reporting based on leaks of U.S. surveillance revealed in February that Flynn misled Vice President Pence about the contents of a December phone call to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — an account Pence was then repeating to the American people.
Yates said she spoke up after realizing that Flynn had mischaracterized a December phone call with Russia’s ambassador.
She offered testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s crime and terrorism subcommittee about how Pence and other Trump officials were providing false information to the public because of their discussions with Flynn.
Yates’s unequivocal public testimony cast fresh scrutiny on the Trump administration’s decision to hire the fiery retired lieutenant general — and raised questions about why he was not fired for 18 days after she first met with White House counsel Donald McGahn.
“We weren’t the only ones that knew all of this,” Yates said Monday, referring to the revelation that Flynn misled Pence about the true content of the phone call with Kislyak. “The Russians also knew about what Gen. Flynn had done. The Russians also knew that Gen. 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 adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians,” she said.
The heavily hyped Yates testimony was seen as must-watch television because it was the first public testimony by a former Obama administration official in any of the congressional investigations into Russian interference in the presidential election.
Former National Intelligence Director James Clapper also testified on Monday, his first appearance since his Jan. 20 retirement. In an atypically frank testimony for a senior intelligence official, he confirmed a report from The Guardian that multiple European Union allies had passed along intelligence reports of contact between Trump campaign officials and Moscow.
Yates was an acting member of the Trump administration for just a few weeks. She was fired after refusing to defend the president’s executive order imposing a travel ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Although some Republican lawmakers did force her to defend that decision — with Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCornyn raises more than M for Senate GOP Is the Biden administration afraid of trade? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE (R-Texas) calling it “enormously disappointing” — they were unable to distract from her damning testimony on Flynn.
She explicitly contradicted the White House characterization of Flynn’s contact with Kislyak as normal. The administration has said Flynn was dismissed because he misled the vice president, but it also asserted that he was the victim of a “witch hunt” surrounding Trump officials and Russia.
Asked if she could make sense of press secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that “there was nothing in what Gen. Flynn did, in terms of conducting himself, that was an issue,” Yates said, “He didn’t reach that conclusion from the conversation with us.”
She also disputed Spicer’s characterization of her meetings with McGahn as a “heads-up.”
“We were there to tell the White House about something we were very concerned about,” she said.
Yates had two in-person meetings with McGahn on the issue, she said. During the second meeting — at McGahn’s request, according to Yates — the two officials discussed four topics.
McGahn wanted to know why the Department of Justice was concerned whether one White House official was lying to another, according to Yates.
He further asked about “the applicability of certain criminal statutes” and whether any White House action might disrupt an ongoing FBI investigation.
Finally, he asked to see the underlying evidence that Flynn had, in fact, misled the vice president — a request with which Yates says Justice complied.
Republicans, including subcommittee chair Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamA pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Republicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' Senators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products MORE (S.C.), also pressed Yates on “unmasking,” the surveillance practice the GOP believes led to Flynn’s name being leaked to the media.
Both Clapper and Yates defended the practice — which allows certain officials to learn the names of Americans caught up incidentally in surveillance of foreigners — as necessary and routine.
Yates denied ever requesting the unmasking of Trump, his associates or any member of Congress.
Clapper allowed that he had made such a request once but declined to discuss it further.