Under questioning by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Attorney General Sally Yates on Monday said she warned the White House that President Donald Trump’s then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was vulnerable to Kremlin blackmail after misleading the administration about his Russia connections.
“This was a problem because not only do we believe that the Russians knew this but that they likely had proof of this information,” Yates said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing chaired by Graham. “And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”
Yates and James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, testified about Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential election as multiple probes seek to determine how Moscow interfered and what ties exist between Russian operatives and Trump’s aides.
Graham, a foreign policy hawk who has been one of the most vocal Republican critics of Trump, opened the widely watched hearing with a veiled shot at the president, who has repeatedly dismissed these concerns about Kremlin involvement in 2016.
“From my point of view, there's no doubt in my mind it was the Russians involved in all the things I just described,” Graham said, referring to the U.S. intelligence community’s previous assesments of Russian interference in the U.S. election. “Not just some ‘400 pound guy’ sitting on a bed or any other country. Russia is up to no good when it comes to democracies all over the world.”
Graham asked Yates what she relayed to the White house. Yates said she had two in-person meetings and one phone call with the White House regarding Flynn. She said she met with Don McGahn, White House counsel for Trump, and discussed the situation. She did not comment in the hearing on Flynn’s specific actions or motivations.
“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. “Secondly, we told him we felt like the vice president and others were entitled to know that the information that they were conveying to the American people wasn't true, and we wanted to make it really clear right out of the gate that we were not accusing Vice President Pence of knowingly providing false information to the American people.”
Yates said that she gave the White House this information so they could make an informed decision on whether to fire Flynn.
Graham also asked Yates and Clapper about surveillance and the unmasking process, which involves revealing a U.S. citizen’s identity in intelligence reports. Both often declined to answer many of Graham’s questions regarding Russian collusion.
“General Clapper, during your investigation of all things Russia, did you ever find a situation where a Trump business interest in Russia gave you concern?” Graham asked.
“Not in the course of the preparation of the intelligence community assessment,” Clapper replied.
“At all, anytime?” Graham said.
“Senator Graham, I can’t comment on that because that impacts an investigation,” Clapper said.
Graham pressed Yates and Clapper on how the confidential information about Flynn was leaked to the Washington Post, and both said they did not know nor were they the ones to leak the information.