Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Monday that she warned the White House about former national-security adviser Michael Flynn's conversations with Russia's ambassador so that the Trump administration "could take action" amid concerns Flynn could have been subject to blackmail by the Russians.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chair of the subcommittee, asked Yates what she told the White House about Flynn when she warned them in January about his contact with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, during the election.
Yates said she had had "two in-person meetings and one phone call" with White House counsel Don McGahn in January about Flynn.
Yates explained that she called McGahn with "a very sensitive matter" that she needed to discuss with him in person. She and another career Justice Department official then traveled to the White House to meet with McGahn and one of his associates in his office, where she told them that there had been press accounts related to Flynn's conduct that the DOJ "knew to be untrue."
"We told them how we had this information, how we had acquired it, and how we knew it was untrue," Yates recalled.
She continued: "We told them that the conduct Flynn had engaged in [speaking to Kislyak] was problematic in and of itself. We said that the vice president was entitled to know that the information he was giving the American people was not true. And we told him we were concerned that the American people had been misled about what General Flynn had done, and that we weren't the only ones who knew about this."
While he was vice president-elect, Pence insisted in an interview with CBS that Flynn and Kislyak "did not discuss anything having to do with the United States' decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia" — a statement that turned out to be untrue and that set off alarm bells at the Justice Department.
Yates said the Russians "also knew what Flynn had done, and that he had misled the vice president and others. This was a problem, because the Russians likely had proof of this information, which created a situation where he could be blackmailed by the Russians. We told them we were giving them this information so they could take action. McGahn asked me if Flynn should be fired. I said that wasn't my call."
Yates met with McGahn again on January 27, during which McGahn asked her why the DOJ cared if "one White House official lied to another." He also wanted to know if the Department of Justice was pursuing a criminal case against Flynn, and expressed concern that firing Flynn could "interfere with the FBI taking action against" him. McGahn also asked Yates to see the DOJ's evidence of Flynn's conversations with Kislyak.
The FBI is investigating Flynn's contact with Kislyak as part of its probe into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. The bureau interviewed Flynn about his conversations with Kislyak in January as part that probe, but Yates said she could not disclose "how Flynn did" in that interview because the investigation is ongoing.
Yates said that she called McGahn on January 30 — hours before she was fired by Trump for refusing to enforce his first immigration order — to tell him that he could come over to the DOJ to review the details of Flynn's communication with Kislyak. She said she didn't know if McGahn ever took the DOJ up on that offer, however, because she was fired shortly thereafter.
Yates told Democratic Sen. Chris Coons that, in the course of the meetings, "Mr. McGahn demonstrated that he understood that this was serious." But she said she didn't know if the White House took any additional steps to restrict Flynn's access to sensitive or classified information.
"If they didn't take any action, that would certainly be concerning," Yates said.
Flynn was asked to resign roughly 18 days after Yates first warned McGahn about his conversations with Kislyak. Democratic Sen. Al Franken asked if Yates had any idea why Trump did not fire Flynn immediately, but she replied that she could not comment.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin asked Yates if there was "anything else" Yates warned McGahn about with respect to Flynn's relationship with Russia. She replied that she and McGahn only discussed the issue of Flynn's conversations with Kislyak.
Flynn has come under scrutiny for failing to disclose payments from Russia's state-owned news agency, Russia Today, when he was renewing his security clearance in January 2016. NBC reported on Monday that Flynn never obtained the broader security clearance from the CIA that he needed to serve as national security adviser before he resigned on February 13.
President Barack Obama in November warned Trump, then the president-elect, against hiring Flynn as his national security adviser, multiple media outlets reported on Monday.
Sen. Graham asked Yates and Clapper later how The Washington Post learned that Flynn had communicated with Kislyak. They both replied that neither of them had leaked the information to the press, but Yates noted that the intelligence community sometimes releases its reports — which go to several officials across the US government — with the name of the US person caught up in incidental surveillance of a non-US person already unmasked.
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