WASHINGTON (CN) – Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates said Monday she warned President Donald Trump’s administration that former national security adviser Michael Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail, after he lied about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.
Yates’ highly anticipated testimony came the same day the Associated Press reported that President Barack Obama had personally warned Trump not to hire Flynn.
The question that did not get answered during more than three hours of testimony Monday afternoon is why the White House waited 18 days to fire Flynn after learning he had lied.
Yates recounted for the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism two meetings she had with Don McGahn, Trump’s White House counsel.
The first happened on Jan. 26, after Vice President Mike Pence said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” that Flynn did not discuss the Obama-imposed sanctions meant to punish Russia’s election meddling during a meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Though Yates did not directly discuss evidence that proved Flynn had lied, FBI surveillance of Kislyak had picked up their exchange and showed the two discussed the sanctions, as the Washington Post reported on Feb. 9.
According to that report, senior U.S. officials perceived the conversation as a signal that Moscow could expect sanctions relief under the Trump administration.
The contact drew heightened scrutiny on the heels of the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia had interfered in the U.S. election to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton.
Flynn’s own contacts with Russia have also raised eyebrows, including an appearance at a 2015 gala for state-sponsored Russian news network RT, during which he was photographed seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
During her first meeting with McGahn, Yates said she warned him that Flynn had lied to Pence, and cautioned that the differences in public and private statements rendered Flynn vulnerable to blackmail.
Yates described two concerns discussed in the first meeting: “Compromise was certainly the number one concern. And the Russians use compromise material information in a variety of ways, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly,” she said.
“And again, our concern was that you have a very sensitive position like the national security adviser and you don’t want that person to be in a position where the Russians have leverage over them,” she added.
Pence was also entitled to know Flynn had lied to him, Yates said.
McGahn asked Yates to meet again the next day, when he asked why the Justice Department would care if White House officials lie to each other. He also asked Yates about whether Flynn could be criminally prosecuted. Yates told the subcommittee she’d answered Flynn could not be prosecuted, but that she did tell McGahn the FBI had recently interviewed Flynn.
She offered no details Tuesday about the content of that interview, but did reveal that she had rushed to the White House before the FBI wrote up its report about the interview, known as a 302.
“We felt it was important to get this information to the White House as quickly as possible,” Yates said.
“The first thing we did was to explain to Mr. McGahn that the underlying conduct that Gen. Flynn had engaged in was problematic in and of itself,” she later added without giving any detail about that conduct, which she said was classified.
During the hearing, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., pondered if Trump had refrained from firing Flynn right away out of concern about whether he would have to fire other administration officials that had contacts with the Russian ambassador.
Tight-lipped, Yates declined to weigh in on the matter.
She did say she had agreed to make Justice Department evidence against Flynn available to McGahn, who had requested it, but did not know if the White House ever reviewed it. The Trump administration allowed Flynn to stay in his post until the Washington Post broke the story that Flynn had discussed the sanctions with Kislyak.
Trump fired Flynn the next day, on Feb. 10, after a media firestorm. The White House continues to deny that Flynn discussed sanctions with Kislyak.
On Monday afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer downplayed the revelation that Obama had warned Trump about Flynn, saying Obama “wasn’t exactly a fan of Gen. Flynn.”
“If President Obama was truly concerned about Gen. Flynn, why didn’t he suspend Gen. Flynn’s security clearance, which they had just reapproved months earlier,” Spicer said.
“Additionally, why did the Obama administration let Flynn go to Russia for a paid speaking engagement, which he did” Spicer added.
The majority of Republican senators on the subcommittee zeroed in on who unmasked Flynn in the intercepted communications, and who leaked the nature of their meeting to the Washington Post – both issues raised by the White House.
“The bottom line here, I want to know how it got to the Washington Post,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Both Yates and former director of national intelligence James Clapper, who testified alongside Yates, said they weren’t the ones that unmasked Flynn or leaked it to the press. Nor did they authorize anyone else to do so, they said.
Clapper offered several new tidbits during his testimony. He apparently learned about the FBI investigation of Russia’s election meddling, including an examination of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, when FBI Director James Comey announced it in March during a House intelligence hearing.
He had previously told NBC “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd that he was unaware of any evidence of collusion, but told the subcommittee the FBI generally does not share information about its counterterrorism investigations – leaving him out of the loop on such matters.
Though Clapper said there were no significant concerns about Trump-Russia business ties for the purposes of assembling the January intelligence community report on Russian election meddling, he declined to comment further, saying it would interrupt the investigation.
According to Yates, she approached the White House with information about Flynn with the expectation administration officials would do something about it. She did not, however, recommend Flynn be fired, but stated hypothetically that had she stayed on as acting attorney general, she would have raised the issue again if the White House failed to act.
Trump dismissed Yates on Jan. 30, after she refused to defend his first executive order on immigration that temporarily halted refugee admissions and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Yates had said the order was unconstitutional.
Yates served in the Department of Justice for 27 years, spanning five administrations.