WASHINGTON (CN) — As Senate Republicans continue investigations into the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates on Wednesday defended the decision to investigate former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
“General Flynn had had conversations with the Russian ambassador — backchannel, secret conversations — neutering the sanctions to the U.S. government and had been covering it up, had been providing false information to the vice president and others to put out publicly,” Yates told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We — we being the government — needed to know what was going on here. Was General Flynn acting on his own or was he working with others?”
Yates appeared before the committee as the second public witness in its investigation into Crossfire Hurricane, the name given to the early stages of the FBI’s investigation into allegations of collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign in 2016.
Republicans have zeroed in on the origins of the Russia probe following Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report finding that while the investigation had valid underpinning, there were “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in applications to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Democrats, meanwhile, have criticized the congressional Republicans’ probes as politically motivated attempts to discredit the findings of former special counsel Robert Mueller, whose investigation grew out of Crossfire Hurricane.
Yates, who was the second-highest-ranking official at the Justice Department at the end of the Obama administration, acknowledged the errors in the Page applications and, like her successor Rod Rosenstein, said she would not have signed off on the surveillance if she knew then what she knows now.
“Senator, I believe that the Department of Justice and the FBI have a duty of candor with the FISA court that was not met,” Yates said, referring to the secretive intelligence court that approves surveillance applications.
On Wednesday, Republicans focused in specifically on the launch of an inquiry into Flynn, the incoming national security adviser, over conversations he had with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition.
In the calls, about which Flynn later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, Flynn urged the Russian government not to respond harshly to sanctions the Obama administration put in place in response to the Kremlin’s campaign to interfere in the 2016 election.
Yates said the conversations between Flynn and Kislyak came to light after the Russian government surprisingly backed off from responding to the Obama sanctions and that looking into Flynn was an entirely appropriate counterintelligence probe.
Echoing long-stated Republican criticisms of the decision to investigate Flynn, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham accused senior officials in the Obama administration, including Vice President Joe Biden and former FBI Director James Comey, of digging up the Logan Act to conduct a political investigation into a high ranking member of the incoming administration.
Enacted in the 18th century, the Logan Act prohibits citizens from conducting unauthorized discussions with foreign governments that would interfere with U.S. foreign policy. It has never been successfully used to prosecute anyone and some scholars have raised questions about its constitutionality.
“The Logan Act has never been used for a reason,” Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Wednesday. “I think it was used here as a sham reason to find out more about General Flynn, who the Obama administration did not like.”
Graham particularly zeroed in on one Oval Office meeting in early January 2017 that Yates attended with Biden, Obama, Comey and others, where she first learned of the concerns about Flynn.
Yates defended the focus on Flynn and said the Logan Act was never part of that investigation. She said the primary concern of the Obama officials was to decide whether they could share sensitive information with Flynn as part of the transition.
“During the meeting, the president, the vice president and the national security adviser did not in any way attempt to direct or influence any kind of investigation,” Yates said. “Something like that would have set off alarms for me and it would have stuck out both at the time and in my memory. No such thing happened.”
But Graham accused the Justice Department of going forward with an investigation over a policy disagreement — namely that Flynn did not agree with the sanctions the Obama administration had put in place against Russia.
“Your beef with Flynn was he was undercutting Obama policy,” Graham said.
Yates responded that the concerns were more than just a policy disagreement.
“What we were worried about was that he was undercutting Obama policy and then he was covering it up,” Yates said.
Though she defended the probe into Flynn’s conduct, Yates agreed when Graham asked if Comey went “rogue” in going forward with an interview of Flynn without coordinating with the Justice Department.
Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his calls with Kislyak, but the Justice Department has sought to drop the case against him, claiming there was no legitimate basis to conduct the interview in which the lies occurred.
President Donald Trump and his allies in Congress have been vocal in their criticisms of the Flynn prosecution, claiming he was treated unfairly and duped into lying. The D.C. Circuit, after initially ordering a federal judge to drop the case against Flynn, will hear en banc arguments next week on the case.
Though critical of Comey’s lack of coordination with the Justice Department, Yates rejected those claims and insisted there was a perfectly valid reason to bring Flynn in for an interview.
“Interviewing General Flynn was really right at the core of the FBI’s investigation at this point to try to discern what are the ties between the Trump administration and the Russians,” Yates said.