Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified to a Senate Judiciary Committee panel on Monday in one of the most hotly anticipated hearings of the Trump era to date.
Yates’s testimony was a huge media event, commanding hours of live cable news coverage.
She came before the committee following several media reports that she had warned the White House that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had been compromised almost three weeks before he resigned. However, nothing had been heard on the record from Yates herself.
Yates was fired over a separate matter days after delivering the warning about Flynn. She declined to order the Department of Justice to defend President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE’s controversial executive order that sought to temporarily bar most travelers and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations, as well as indefinitely halt the admission of Syrian refugees.
In a further twist, Yates’s Monday testimony was preceded by tweets from Trump implying, without evidence, that she had leaked classified information to the media. She denied this during the hearing, as did former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who testified alongside her.
In the hours before Yates appeared, NBC News also broke the news that former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama Chelsea Manning tests positive for COVID-19 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows Obama backs Trudeau in Canadian election MORE had personally warned Trump against appointing Flynn to such a sensitive role before he assumed office.
What were the most important points from the hearing itself?
Yates’s testimony is trouble for the White House
The drama and detail of Yates’s testimony amounted to bad news for the White House.
The core of her account was that she held two meetings with White House counsel Don McGahn on Jan. 26 and Jan. 27 warning about the dangers pertaining to Flynn. The former lieutenant general would not resign until Feb. 13, after the shortest-ever tenure as national security adviser.
As Yates portrayed it, she was clear with McGahn that Flynn was compromised. She believed — correctly, as it turned out — that Flynn had misled senior figures in the administration, including Vice President Pence, about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, during the transition period.
“To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security adviser compromised by the Russians,” Yates said, in one of several memorable lines during the hearing. She also raised the possibility of Flynn being blackmailed by the Russians.
The way in which Yates described her encounters with McGahn was very different from the more casual tone adopted by the White House. Soon after Flynn left, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that Yates had merely sought to “give a quote ‘heads-up’ to us on some comments that might have seemed in conflict with what [Flynn] had sent the vice president.”
Yates, by contrast, characterized her desire for a meeting as “a matter of some urgency” because of the gravity of the issue.
There were also some intriguing details in her testimony. Yates said that McGahn had asked her how Flynn had performed when FBI agents interviewed him — a question she said she had declined to answer. The FBI interview apparently took place inside the White House.
Taken as a whole, Yates’s testimony only sharpens the question of why the Trump administration left Flynn in such a sensitive position after receiving her warning.
The battle over Trump’s ‘travel ban’ has not ended
The issue central to Yates’s firing still generates political heat — as was shown during one of the most spectacular clashes of the hearing.
Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMore than 10,000 migrants await processing under bridge in Texas Senators slow Biden with holds at Pentagon, State The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails MORE (R-Texas) needled Yates over her decision to refuse to defend the travel ban. The Texas senator asked her if she was familiar with a certain part of the Immigration and Nationality Act that gives the president broad authority to decide who can enter the United States.
Yates, who seemed prepared for that line of attack, shot back that she was equally familiar with another statue that outlaws discrimination in immigration matters on the basis of race or nation of birth, among other things.
Yates held her own against similar questioning from Sen. John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats make case to Senate parliamentarian for 8 million green cards Democrats to make pitch Friday for pathway to citizenship in spending bill Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime MORE (R-Texas), who complained that she had “countermanded an executive order of the president of the United States because you disagreed with it as a policy matter.”
Republicans are likely to defend those questions as legitimate inquiries into whether Yates overreached or let her personal views cloud her professional judgment. Democrats will see them as an effort to delegitimize her other testimony.
No break from partisanship
In his opening remarks, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows Trump offers sympathy for those charged with Jan. 6 offenses Lindsey Graham: Police need 'to take a firm line' with Sept. 18 rally attendees MORE (R-S.C.) emphasized his hope that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election could transcend party lines.
“When a foreign power interferes in our election, it doesn’t matter who they targeted, we are all in the same boat,” Graham argued.
But the questioning of Yates and Clapper did not fulfill that hope.
GOP senators spent much of their time trying to excoriate Yates for her conduct on the executive order or raising concerns about leaks that were damaging to the White House.
Democrats, meanwhile, sought to paint the Trump administration’s actions in the most negative light possible. Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenAl Franken on another Senate run: 'I'm keeping my options open' Andrew Cuomo and the death of shame Could Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? MORE (D-Minn.) called Flynn “a danger to this Republic.”
Bad for Trump, but no smoking gun
While it was not a good day for the White House overall, there was no surprise “smoking gun” uncovered to inflict unexpected damage on Trump himself.
The Trump-specific controversy during the day was mostly engendered by his morning tweet encouraging people to “ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Counsel.”
Some liberals on social media accused Trump of engaging in de facto witness intimidation. Spicer, during his daily White House press briefing, parried that the tweet “speaks for itself.”
But it was McGahn, not Trump, who was the most central administration figure during the hearing. Yates said the White House counsel had not told her during their second meeting whether he had informed Trump of the issues raised in their first encounter.
One point of intrigue is whether McGahn will answer some of the questions raised by Yates’s testimony in a public forum.
Speculation about Yates running for office could get louder
The liberal reaction on social media to Yates’s testimony was exuberantly positive.
The praise was focused particularly on her clash with Cruz and on the bluntness of her words regarding the seriousness of the Flynn matter.
Yates seemed to relish even the harshest exchanges during the hearing, and she never came close to losing her poise.
There is sure to be speculation that Yates could seek, and win, political office — if she wants it.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.