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Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing

Republican senators sparred on Wednesday with former Deputy Attorney General Sally YatesSally Caroline YatesSally Yates: I never thought that I'd be saying, 'Yeah, go Liz Cheney' ABC lands first one-on-one TV interview with Garland since confirmation Appointing a credible, non-partisan Jan. 6 commission should not be difficult MORE over investigations into former Trump aides that were related to Russia's interference in the 2016 election. 

Yates testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump's biggest political obstacle is Trump The Hill's Equilibrium — Presented by NextEra Energy — Tasmanian devil wipes out penguin population The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden support, gas tax questions remain on infrastructure MORE’s (R-S.C.) probe into the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation and former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE’s investigation. Graham is one of two Senate Republicans running probes into the Obama administration's investigations of Russia. 

The hearing, however, also had overtones of the 2020 election. Graham is a key Senate ally of President TrumpDonald TrumpIran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' Ivanka Trump, Kushner distance themselves from Trump claims on election: CNN Overnight Defense: Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on critical race theory | House bill introduced to overhaul military justice system as sexual assault reform builds momentum MORE, and the investigations are ramping up with less than 100 days to go before the 2020 election. Trump is badly trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenSchumer vows to advance two-pronged infrastructure plan next month Biden appoints veteran housing, banking regulator as acting FHFA chief Iran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' MORE in national and key swing-state polls.

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Republicans, during the more than three-hour hearing, questioned Yates on the investigations into former national security adviser Michael Flynn and campaign aide Carter Page and the use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Graham argued several times that the investigation involving Flynn had been closed in January 2017. At one point, Yates interjected, saying, "Senator, I'm sorry. That's just not accurate. It was not closed on Jan 4." 

"The only problem here is that you didn't like Flynn changing the policy or talking about changing the policy. ... We're criminalizing policy differences. That's why Flynn got prosecuted — because they hated his guts," Graham fired back. 

Flynn was fired in 2017 for misleading Vice President Pence about his conversations with then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. Flynn had initially entered into an agreement in 2017 to cooperate with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and pleaded guilty, but he subsequently withdrew from the plea agreement and was fighting the charges. 

The Justice Department decided earlier this year to drop the case against Flynn, setting off a political firestorm on Capitol Hill. 

Yates, asked about the decision on Wednesday, called it “highly irregular.” 

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Trump, in a tweet as the hearing got underway, said Yates “has zero credibility. She was a part of the greatest political crime of the Century, and ObamaBiden knew EVERYTHING! Sally Yates leaked the General Flynn conversation? Ask her under oath. Republicans should start playing the Democrats game!” 

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) asked if Trump “violated the law by colluding with Russia.” When Yates replied that Mueller had found there was insufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy but that she hadn’t taken part in the Mueller investigation and shouldn't opine further on it, Kennedy asked if Yates just “couldn’t bring yourself to say that he didn’t violate the law.”

“Senator, you’re putting words in my mouth,” Yates responded. 

When Yates told Kennedy that she didn't “respect the manner in which [Trump] has carried out the presidency,” he then asked, “You despise Donald Trump, don’t you?” 

“I don't despise anyone, senator,” she added. 

Republicans have homed in on a January 2017 White House meeting, including questioning whether former President Obama or Biden, the former vice president, were trying to influence the investigation into Flynn. Obama and then-FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyMystery surrounds Justice's pledge on journalist records NYT publisher: DOJ phone records seizure a 'dangerous incursion' on press freedom Trump DOJ seized phone records of New York Times reporters MORE discussed sharing national security information related to Russia with Flynn, who was charged with lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia shortly before Trump took office. 

Yates, however, knocked down several GOP talking points, including that Obama or Biden was attempting to direct the direction of the Flynn investigation. Yates also repeatedly rejected assertions that a potential violation of the Logan Act was driving the FBI’s decision to investigate Flynn. 

“During the meeting, the president, the vice president, the national security adviser did not attempt to in any way ... direct or influence any investigation,” Yates said, adding that doing so would have “set off alarms for me.” 

When asked if the Logan Act was brought up, Yates added that the law was not the primary focus but instead a counterintelligence concern driven by Flynn’s talks with Kislyak and his subsequent lies to the FBI about the details of those talks. 

Yates also signed both the initial warrant application on Page and the first renewal. Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz found seven significant errors and omissions in the initial application and a total of 17 among the four warrant applications linked to Page. 

Tensions at times boiled over between senators during the hearing, underscoring the divisions in the committee about Graham’s investigation in the lead-up to the 2020 election. 

“Nobody appears to know anything in this government, and yet somehow a federal court was deliberately and systematically misled. ... If this doesn't call for a cleaning of house at DOJ and the FBI, I don’t know what is,” Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyFlorida hackers change highway sign to read 'Arrest Fauci' Majority of Republicans thinks critical race theory negatively affects society: poll Harris casts tiebreaking vote to confirm OPM nominee MORE (R-Mo.) argued after questioning Yates on the Page warrant applications. 

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Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinHeat wave sparks historically unseasonable wildfires in West Energized Trump probes pose problems for Biden Granholm defends US emissions targets: 'If we don't take action, where are we?' MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the panel, interjected, “I see there’s no reason for those remarks. They’re inflammatory.” Graham then defended Hawley, saying they weren’t “inflammatory at all.” 

“I think they’re the truth. ... What the hell is going on over there?” Graham asked. 

As Graham questioned Yates and repeatedly interrupted her answers, Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyBipartisan group of 21 lawmakers push Biden to ban most landmines Biden at Sen. John Warner's funeral: He 'gave me confidence' Supreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda MORE (D-Vt.), a former chairman of the panel, chided him, saying, "Just because it's a woman testifying doesn't mean she has to be cut off."

"Thanks a lot, Sen. Leahy. I really appreciate that,” Graham responded dryly. “You're very constructive.”