At a hearing intended to be about Russian interference in the election, U.S. senators instead focused much of their attention on decisions Sally Yates made during her short tenure as acting attorney general.
Soon after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Yates warned the White House that then National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had misled Trump administration officials about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, eventually leading to Flynn’s ousting.
Yates appeared before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism alongside former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Their May 8 testimony touched on many parts of the Russia storyline, with questions about WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and whether either Clapper or Yates ever leaked information to the media anonymously (no, they said).
Here’s what we learned.
Yates said Flynn was compromised.
In a series of meetings beginning Jan. 26, Yates discussed Flynn with White House Counsel Don McGahn. In those meetings, Yates said Vice President Mike Pence was publicly making claims about Flynn that the Justice Department knew to be untrue.
At the hearing, Yates said she decided to bring this to the White House’s attention because Russian officials would likely have proof that Flynn misled White House officials, opening up the opportunity for blackmail.
"To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians," she said.
Yates said the White House didn’t consult the Justice Department about the travel ban executive order — she learned about it from media reports.
Yates defended her decision to go against the executive branch Office of Legal Counsel’s endorsement of Trump’s travel ban because she wasn’t convinced that the order was constitutional.
She did not have time to review the order before being asked to defend it, she said, because no one from the White House consulted her team or national security experts before Trump signed it.
The travel ban order is currently held up in federal court. (There was a court hearing about the revised version the same day.)
While questioning Yates, Republican senators suggested she opposed the travel ban for political reasons. It’s worth noting that Yates has held leadership positions under Republican and Democratic administrations, having worked for the Justice Department since 1989 — though she became the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia and then deputy attorney general under President Barack Obama.
Clapper said his vetting as a political appointee was more invasive than the typical security clearance process.
Senators questioned Yates and Clapper about breaking news stories, based on anonymous sources, from major media outlets earlier in the day.
NBC reported that Flynn did not obtain a new CIA security clearance, required of National Security Council appointees. Multiple outlets also said that Obama, who had already fired Flynn two years earlier, warned Trump in their November White House meeting not to hire him.
The NBC report is notable because Trump regularly defends his decision to hire Flynn, a loyal campaign messenger, by pointing out that Flynn received his security clearance while Obama was president.
Clapper said he couldn’t speak to Flynn’s security clearance specifically. But he said that in his experience as a two-time political appointee, the vetting process for White House national security staff is above and beyond a typical top-secret security clearance review.
Other details from the hearing:
• Clapper said he wasn’t aware of the FBI investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election while he was director of national intelligence.
• Both Yates and Clapper repeatedly denied leaking classified information to the media — despite insinuations by Trump on Twitter.
• They both declined to speak in a non-classified setting about various aspects of the investigations into Trump associates’ ties to Russia.