Yates Fuels Questions About Trump's 18-Day Delay in Firing Flynn

  • Flynn’s dismissal came only after media reports of his calls
  • Former acting attorney general says Flynn was compromised

Yates Says General Flynn Compromised by the Russians

Eighteen days.

That’s how much time passed from acting Attorney General Sally Yates’s warning to the White House that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence about contacts with Russian officials to the administration’s decision to fire him.

The White House will be under increasing pressure to explain what it did during that period after Yates’ Senate testimony on Monday, her highest-profile appearance since President Donald Trump fired her Jan. 30 for refusing to enforce his initial travel ban. Her revelations come as FBI and multiple congressional committees intensify their scrutiny of Russia’s meddling in last year’s election and any possible connections to Trump aides or associates.

Yates, an Obama administration holdover, said she reached out to White House Counsel Donald McGahn in late January after noting discrepancies between classified intelligence reports on Flynn’s behavior and Pence’s descriptions of what the national security adviser told him.

Blackmail Potential

In two White House meetings on Jan. 26 and Jan. 27, Yates said she told McGahn that the classified information suggested that Flynn was potentially subject to blackmail because the Russians would know he had misled Pence.

"We felt it was critical we get this information to the White House," Yates told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in a hearing alongside former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. "We believed that General Flynn was compromised with respect to the Russians. To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.”

McGahn, Yates said, asked her why it mattered “if one White House official lies to another White House official.” Yates said she emphasized legal concerns about Flynn’s “underlying conduct,” calling Flynn’s behavior "problematic in and of itself.” Pence and the administration also needed to know they were making false statements based on information Flynn had given them, she said.

Flynn was eventually dismissed on Feb. 13, four days after the Washington Post reported he had discussed sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, which he misled Pence about.

‘False Assurances’

“Why did the President wait until General Flynn’s false assurances to the Vice President and others become public before removing him from his post,” Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is pursuing its own investigation into Trump-Russia ties, said in a statement.

After the Senate Judiciary subcommittee’s hearing ended, Trump said in one of a series of tweets that Yates had given the media “nothing but old news.” He went on to say, “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?”

Yates’s testimony came just hours after the disclosure that then-President Barack Obama warned Trump during the presidential transition against hiring Flynn as his national security adviser. Obama raised his concerns during his Oval Office meeting with Trump on Nov. 10, according to an Obama administration official who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters. Obama had fired Flynn from a post as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged and quickly discounted the warning from Obama, telling reporters Monday that “President Obama made it known that he wasn’t exactly a fan of General Flynn’s, which shouldn’t come as a surprise” given Flynn’s role as an outspoken Trump supporter and Obama critic.

Trump has stood by Flynn -- an early supporter during the presidential campaign -- even after his dismissal, saying in a March 31 Twitter posting that the lieutenant general is the subject of a “witch hunt” and should be given “immunity” from prosecution to tell congressional committees his story.

For a QuickTake Q&A on the Trump-Russia saga, click here

Trump had started the week seeking to preempt any potentially damaging testimony through tweets blaming the Obama administration for giving Flynn a security clearance and urging that Yates be questioned about whether she was responsible for leaks about him.

“Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Counsel,” Trump tweeted.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, did just that, asking both Yates and Clapper whether they leaked information about Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador or authorized anyone else to do so. Both answered no and said they didn’t know how the information ended up in news reports.

Some senators sought to focus the discussion on the “unmasking” of U.S. persons such as Flynn in intelligence reports after they are overheard or mentioned in surveillance of foreign intelligence targets. Clapper defended the unmasking of Americans, who normally aren’t mentioned by name in the reports, as important in some cases to understand what the foreign targets were trying to do.

‘Huge Deal’

"I did feel an obligation as DNI that I should attempt to understand the context in who this person was," said Clapper, who left office at the end of the Obama administration on Jan. 20. He said there was a big difference between unmasking a name and leaking it to the public, which he agreed was a crime. He sought to steer the focus of the hearing toward what he described as Russia’s continuing efforts to undermine democracies by interfering in elections in the U.S. and Europe.

“That to me is a huge deal,” Clapper said. “They are going to continue to do it and why not? It proved successful."

Yates also was challenged by Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas on her refusal to defend Trump’s initial travel ban in court, a decision that led to her firing.

She defended the decision to overrule the department’s own experts on whether an executive order is constitutional, pointing to her 2015 testimony during her confirmation hearing to be deputy attorney general that she would be willing to tell a president "no." 

"All arguments have to be based on truth," she said, adding that she concluded that Trump’s order, which would have banned entry to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries, “was not lawful."

Cornyn said her decision to countermand the president’s order on policy grounds was “enormously disappointing.”

"I believed that it was unlawful,” she replied.

— With assistance by Margaret Talev, and Arit John

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