WASHINGTON — The former acting attorney general told senators today that she warned the White House just six days after the inauguration that former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn “was compromised with respect to the Russians.”
Sally Yates, the deputy attorney general fired Jan. 30 by President Trump for refusing to defend his travel ban executive order that was later stopped in court, told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism that she first met with White House counsel Don McGahn on Jan. 26. Along with “a senior member of the national security division who was overseeing this matter,” the pair told McGahn “there had been press accounts of statements from the vice president and others that related conduct that Mr. Flynn had been involved in that we knew not to be the truth… we told them how we knew that this — how we had this information, how we had acquired it, and how we knew that it was untrue.”
Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI shortly beforehand, at the White House and without counsel present, she recalled. “Mr. McGahn asked me how he did and I declined to give him an answer to that,” Yates said. “And we then walked through with Mr. McGahn essentially why we were telling them about this and the first thing we did was to explain to Mr. McGahn that the underlying conduct that General Flynn had engaged in was problematic in and of itself.”
Yates said McGahn was told “that we weren’t the only ones that knew all of this, that the Russians also knew about what General Flynn had done.”
“And the Russians also knew that General Flynn had misled the vice president and others, because in the media accounts, it was clear from the vice president and others that they were repeating what General Flynn had told them, and that this was a problem because not only did we believe that the Russians knew this, but that they likely had proof of this information,” she added. “And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”
She told senators that McGahn asked if Flynn should be fired, “and I told him that that really wasn’t our call, that was up to them, but that we were giving them this information so that they could take action.”
McGahn, Yates continued, called her up the next morning and asked if they could meet again. At that meeting, she said, he “asked about the applicability of certain statutes, certain criminal statutes” applying to Flynn’s conduct.
“One of the questions that Mr. McGahn asked me when I went back over the second day was, essentially, why does it matter to DOJ if one White House official lies to another White House official? And so we explained to him, it was a whole lot more than that.”
McGahn requested in that meeting to look at the underlying evidence on Flynn. As it was a Friday, Yates worked with the FBI over the weekend and arranged for McGahn to come to DOJ and view the evidence that Monday — the day that Yates was fired.
Flynn was forced to resign 18 days after Yates first brought her concerns to McGahn. She said she didn’t know “what steps they may have taken, if any” at the White House “during that 18 days to minimize any risk.”
“You don’t want the national security adviser to be in a position where the Russians have leverage over him,” she said. “Now, in terms of what impact that may have or could have had, I can’t speak to that, but we knew that was not a good situation, which is why we wanted to let the White House know about it.”
Testifying alongside Yates, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who announced his resignation in November and left when former President Obama did, was asked if reports were accurate that British intelligence passed along to the U.S. information about suspicious interactions between Russian intelligence and Trump advisers beginning in late 2015 followed by more intelligence from European allies in spring 2016.
“Yes, it is, and it’s also quite sensitive,” Clapper replied.
Chairman Lindsey Graham asked if there was “any incidental collection, where our intelligence community collects information, involving a presidential candidate on either side of the aisle during 2015 or 2016.”
Clapper replied, “Not to my knowledge.” Yates declined to respond, as “the answer would require me to reveal classified information.”
When each witness was asked if they had ever requested the unmasking of the names of Donald Trump, his associates or any member of Congress, Clapper said there was “one case” but wouldn’t elaborate in an open setting. Yates said she never requested names be unmasked in intelligence reports. Both said they had reviewed classified documents in which the names of any of the aforementioned had been unmasked, but declined to give further details.
Clapper gave the committee a lengthy explanation about unmasking, “an unofficial term that’s appeared frequently in the media in recent months and was often I think misused and misunderstood,” even being incorrectly conflated with leaks.
“At no time did I ever submit a request for personal or political purposes or to voyeuristically look at raw intelligence nor am I aware of any instance of such abuse by anyone else,” the former DNI said.
Clapper later added: “And I understand how critical leaks are and unmasking and all these ancillary issues. But to me, the transcendent issue here is the Russian interference in our election process, and what that means to the erosion of the fundamental fabric of our democracy.”
“And that to me is a huge deal,” he said. “And they’re going to continue to do it. And why not? It proved successful.”