Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified to a Senate subcommittee Monday that she told the Trump White House in January that former Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn had opened himself up to be “blackmailed by the Russians.”
Yates recounted for the senators a meeting with White House Counsel Doug McGahn in Donald Trump’s first week as president. She said she provided McGahn with information that Flynn had been “compromised by the Russians” because of false statements he’d made to the public.
While Yates did not expound on the details of the case at the hearing, it’s been widely reported that Yates told McGahn that Flynn had lied about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak before Trump’s inauguration.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has characterized Yates’ meetings as more of a “heads up” than a warning, but Yates refuted that portrayal, saying it had been a matter of “urgency” and that, after a second meeting with McGahn, they “worked with the FBI over the weekend” to make the underlying evidence immediately available to the White House.
“To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians,” she said.
Yates was a holdover from the Obama administration who served as attorney general while Jeff Sessions waited for Senate confirmation.
Flynn and other White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, had publicly denied that Flynn had discussed economic sanctions on Russia with Kislyak. The Obama administration had levied those sanctions against Russia in retaliation for interfering in last year’s presidential election. Russia initially indicated they would respond in kind but then suddenly reversed course and did not enact sanctions against the United States.
Intelligence agencies, however, reportedly listened in on the call and the transcription of it refuted Flynn’s account that sanctions weren’t discussed and potentially affected Russia’s decision to unexpectedly stand down. After being presented with this evidence, the White House did not ask for Flynn’s resignation for 18 days and only after the Washington Post reported on Flynn’s false account.
Trump said at a press conference in February that he believed Flynn had done nothing wrong by talking to Kislyak but that Flynn “didn’t tell the vice president of the United States the facts. And then he didn’t remember. And that just wasn’t acceptable to me.” It is still unclear why Trump waited 18 days after discovering that Flynn had not told Pence the truth.
The top-ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, suggested that the Trump administration’s ties to Russia had the makings of a Watergate-size scandal. “Many years ago, an 18-minute gap transfixed the country and got everybody’s attention in another investigation,” he said. “In this case, we have an 18- day gap between the notification of the White House that a senior official had potentially been compromised and action taken against that senior official’s role.”
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified alongside Yates Monday that Russia’s actions in last year’s presidential election were “egregious” and that “they must be congratulating themselves for succeeding beyond their wildest imagination with a minimal expenditure of resources.”
Following Flynn’s departure in February, President Trump has defended him and said that the investigation into Russian interference is a “witch hunt.” He has repeatedly tried to redirect the investigation into the leaks that led to the Washington Post story exposing Flynn’s false statements.
In a tweet Monday morning ahead of the hearing, Trump again raised the specter of the leaks and seemed to imply Yates might have been the source :
Yates was indeed asked that question and denied leaking herself or knowing how the information made it into the newspaper.
By the time the Post published its story on February 9, Yates was no longer at the Justice Department. Trump fired her 10 days in after she refused to defend his controversial executive order temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, contending it was unconstitutional. Yates spent nearly three decades at the Department of Justice, starting as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.