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Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing

Republican senators sparred on Wednesday with former Deputy Attorney General Sally YatesSally Caroline YatesBiden directs DOJ to phase out use of private prisons The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from chaotic downtown DC Biden to name Merrick Garland for attorney general 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 GrahamPassage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Progressive support builds for expanding lower courts McConnell backs Garland for attorney general MORE’s (R-S.C.) probe into the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation and former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump 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 TrumpSenators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House Georgia secretary of state withholds support for 'reactionary' GOP voting bills 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 BidenKlain on Manchin's objection to Neera Tanden: He 'doesn't answer to us at the White House' Senators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Overnight Defense: New Senate Armed Services chairman talks Pentagon policy nominee, Afghanistan, more | Biden reads report on Khashoggi killing | Austin stresses vaccine safety in new video 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 ComeyJohn Durham's endgame: Don't expect criminal charges Trump DOJ officials sought to block search of Giuliani records: report Tina Fey, Amy Poehler to host Golden Globes from separate coasts amid pandemic 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 HawleyTrump to attack Biden in CPAC speech Laurence Tribe: Justice Thomas is out of order on 2020 election The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Finger-pointing on Capitol riot; GOP balks at Biden relief plan MORE (R-Mo.) argued after questioning Yates on the Page warrant applications. 

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Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinProgressive support builds for expanding lower courts Menendez reintroduces corporate diversity bill What exactly are uber-woke educators teaching our kids? 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 LeahyPress: The big loser: The Republican Party Senate acquits Trump in 57-43 vote Trump lawyer irked after senators laugh at him 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.”