Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates revealed for the first time publicly on Monday the dramatic details of her visit to the White House to tell the president’s lawyer that their National Security Adviser may have been compromised by the Russians.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn was ultimately fired on Feb. 13, 18 days after Yates first notified the White House that Flynn was possibly compromised by the Russian government. This entire time, Flynn continued his duties as National Security Adviser: hiring senior staff, putting Iran ‘on notice’ for its ballistic missile program, and meeting with key foreign leaders.
“To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security adviser compromised by the Russians,” Yates told a Senate subcommittee hearing led by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham on Monday. And by the first week of the Trump administration, the Justice Department had reason to believe that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn could be subject to blackmail by the Russians.
In the days before President Trump’s inauguration, Vice President Pence appeared on television to insist that Flynn had not discussed Russia sanctions with the Russian ambassador in the transition period. Pence said that he had been assured personally by Flynn that this was the case.
This turned out not to be true.
On Jan. 24, as The Washington Post reported, Flynn was was interviewed by the FBI about whether he had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia before Trump came to office. While Yates declined to discuss what Flynn may have said during that interview, she did say that it was shortly after that she decided to go to the White House with her view that Flynn had lied to the vice president.
“Not only did we believe that the Russians knew this but that they likely had proof of this information,” Yates said. “And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the National Security Adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”
Yates said that he had two in-person meetings with White House counsel Don McGahn. On Jan. 26, she rushed to the White House with a senior member of the Justice Department’s national security division. In McGahn’s office, which had been built so that it was safe to discuss classified information, she told him that she knew Flynn had not been truthful in his accounts to the vice president.
“Compromise was certainly the number one concern,” Yates told the Senate subcommittee on Monday. “Another motivating factor is that we felt that the vice president was entitled to know.”
In her first meeting at the White House, Yates told the president’s top lawyer how the Justice Department had come to believe that Flynn had lied to the vice president. The next day, at McGahn’s request, she returned to the White House to continue discussing the matter.
During that second meeting, she discussed four topics with McGahn, who wanted to know why the Justice Department would be concerned with one White House official lying to another; whether Flynn might be liable to be criminally prosecuted; whether taking action against Flynn might interfere with an ongoing FBI investigation; and whether he could see the evidence that showed that Flynn had lied.
Yates said that the Flynn situation was the topic of “a whole lot of discussion” at the Justice Department and the intelligence community. However, her ability to affect the matter was limited on Jan. 30 when the president fired her for declining to defend the first travel ban executive order.
Ultimately, the White House dismissed Yates before dismissing Flynn. Two and a half weeks transpired between the White House’s notification of Flynn’s compromised position and Flynn’s firing.
“Many years ago, an 18-minute gap transfixed the country and got everybody’s attention in another investigation,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, referring to the 18 minute gap in President Nixon’s White House tapes. “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… At best, the Trump administration has displayed serious errors of judgment, at worst, these irregularities may reflect… corruption at the hands of Russian intelligence.”
Monday’s hearing comes as the walls appear to be closing in on Flynn. Earlier in the day, numerous reports citing former Obama administration officials revealed that President Obama had warned President Trump about hiring Flynn. And in an NBC report published Monday before the Yates hearing, officials said that Flynn never informed the Defense Intelligence Agency that the Russians had paid him for a Dec. 2015 trip to Moscow, which may be against the law.
Yet Republicans appeared split on whether to ask questions about Flynn or about Russia, the stated topic of the hearing. Some senators on the right seemed more interested in grilling Yates and Clapper on President Trump’s travel ban (Sen. John Cornyn), Huma Abedin’s handling of classified emails (Sen. Ted Cruz) and unauthorized leaks of information (Sen. Chuck Grassley).
But Graham, who as the chair of the subcommittee appeared to be driving force behind the hearing, asked about possible collusion between Trump Tower and the Kremlin.
“It was the Dems in 2016, it could be the GOP next time,” Graham told the members of the Judiciary subcommittee he chairs. “When one party is attacked, all of us should feel attacked… Every American should be concerned about what the Russians did.”