The first days of the Trump administration were swamped by an unfolding drama of a new national security adviser whose lies appeared to make him vulnerable to blackmail by Russia, a senate committee heard Monday.
Frequently citing security concerns as reason for not providing greater detail, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates said that within days of President Donald Trump’s taking office, she had two phone conversations and two face-to-face meetings with White House counsel Donald McGahn about retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
Those meetings came two days after FBI agents had visited the White House to question Flynn about his Russian contacts.
Yates’ concern: Flynn was subject to blackmail by Russia because it had become clear he was lying about his Dec. 29 conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. U.S. intelligence agencies, and probably the Russians, had recorded the conversation.
“To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security adviser compromised by the Russians,” she said. Later, she added, “We weren’t the only ones who knew all this. The Russians also knew. Not only did we believe that the Russians knew this but they also had proof.”
Yates’ testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime and terrorism was the first time she’d disclosed publicly what she told White House officials about Flynn’s interaction with Kislyak. And it differed sharply from White House spokesman Sean Spicer’s characterization of her warning as a simple “heads up.”
Instead, Yates portrayed a drama that unfolded before Trump had been in office even a week.
It wasn’t the only topic covered in the three-hour hearing. Others included:
-- Retired Director of National Intelligence James Clapper predicted that the Russians would try to interfere in future elections because they’d had success, and the “cost was minimal.” He estimated Russia’s meddling in the 2016 had cost that country about $200 million.
-- Both Yates and Clapper denied ever knowingly leaking classified material to reporters.
-- Yates also said that the White House deliberately concealed from Justice Department leaders its plans for a ban on U.S. entry for citizens of seven Muslim majority countries. Trump fired Yates when she later announced that the Justice Department would not defend the executive order, which was withdrawn later after a U.S. appeals court block it as unconstitutional.
But Yates description of her exchange with Trump officials consumed the bulk of the hearing as she revealed a series of events that until Monday had not been publicly confirmed.
Yates said she first contacted McGahn on Jan. 26, six days after Trump was sworn in, in a morning phone conversation in which she requested a face-to-face meeting, which was held that day. At that meeting, she told McGahn that Flynn had been monitored talking to Kislyak and that transcripts of that meeting showed that Flynn was lying to Vice President Mike Pence about what the two men had discussed.
McGahn called her the next day and asked her to return to the White House. At that second meeting, she said, McGahn had four questions about the matter:
-- Why was the Department of Justice concerned that one White House official had lied to another White House official? She said she answered this by noting the potentially compromising nature of the lie.
-- Did criminal statutes apply to Flynn’s actions? She declined to repeat her answer in the Senate hearing, other than to say that she could not reveal the criminal statute involved without revealing classified information about the matter. But, she said she answered this question to the White House.
-- Would taking action against Flynn interfere in any existing investigation into Flynn?
-- Can we see the underlying evidence?
Yates said that she arranged for White House officials to see the information, but that she could not say whether the White House followed through on the arrangement. Trump fired her Jan. 30 after she refused to defend the travel ban.
Ironically, Flynn wasn’t fired until two weeks later, just hours after the Washington Post reported the Yates-McGahn meeting.
There was no explanation offered for the delay, though senators pointed out that in the 18 days between Yates’ first warning and Flynn’s dismissal, Flynn had participated in a Trump phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin and a meeting between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe regarding North Korean missile tests.
“Given the information that had already been provided by Ms. Yates, should he have participated in these two very specific instances?” Clapper was asked by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii.
“I don't think it was a good practice. Put it that way,” Clapper responded.
Earlier Monday, White House spokesman Spicer acknowledged that President Barack Obama had recommended that Trump not appoint Flynn national security adviser. But Spicer portrayed the Obama advice as partisan.
“President Obama made it known that he wasn't exactly a fan of General Flynn's, which, frankly, shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, given that General Flynn had worked for President Obama, was an outspoken critic of President Obama’s shortcomings, specifically as it related to his lack of strategy confronting ISIS and other threats around that were facing America,” Spicer said.
Spicer questioned why Obama hadn’t suspended Flynn’s security clearance if he was concerned about Flynn.
“If President Obama or anyone else, frankly, in the government was concerned, the question should be asked what did they do?” Spicer said. “And if nothing, then why not if they really truly were concerned? I think that is a fair question.”
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.