Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper were interviewed by the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism on Monday about Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
The subcommittee's chairman, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, said in his opening statement that "when one party is attacked, all of us should feel attacked ... when a foreign power interferes in our election, it doesn't matter who they targeted. We're all in the same boat."
Graham added that he is confident it was the Russians, and not "some 400-pound guy sitting on his bed," who hacked the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, during the election.
Graham said he wants to learn more about the "unmasking" of US citizens like former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who may have been caught up, incidentally, in surveillance of monitored non-US persons believed to be foreign agents.
Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, described in his opening remarks the process by which the intelligence community concluded in January that "the Russian government pursued a multi-faceted influence campaign in the run-up to the election, including aggressive use of cyber capabilities."
"The Intelligence Community Assessment concluded, first, that President Putin directed an influence campaign to erode the faith and confidence of the American people in our presidential election process. Second, that he did so to demean Secretary Clinton. And, third, that he sought to advantage Mr. Trump," Clapper said.
"The conclusions and confidence levels reached at the time still stand," he added. He said later that the evidence the Russians interfered in the election was "overwhelming."
Clapper confirmed, moreover, that European intelligence agencies had passed along information to the US intelligence community about conversations they had picked up between Trump associates and Russians during the election. He added that the intelligence was "quite sensitive," however, so could not discuss it further.
He also addressed the issue of the "unmasking" of US persons caught up in surveillance of monitored foreign agents — the process by which it was revealed that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had been speaking with Russia's ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, during the presidential transition period.
"On several occasions during my six-and-a-half years as DNI, I requested the identity of U.S. persons to be revealed," Clapper said. "In each such instance, I made these requests so I could fully understand the context of the communication and the potential threat being posed. At no time did I ever submit a request for personal or political purposes, or to voyeuristically look at raw intelligence, nor am I aware of any instance of such abuse by anyone else."
He added, however, that leaks of this kind of information "is an unauthorized disclosure" that is "improper under any circumstance."
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley asked Clapper later if he had ever requested that Trump or his associates be "unmasked" in intelligence reports. Clapper replied that he had, "once," but could not provide details.
Yates, the former deputy attorney general who was fired by Trump in January after refusing to enforce his first immigration order, used her opening statement to outline her experience working in the Justice Department for 27 years "through five Democratic and Republican administrations." She emphasized that "the efforts by a foreign adversary to interfere with and undermine our democratic processes — and those of our allies — pose a serious threat to all Americans."
Graham asked Yates if she was aware of any evidence that anyone in the Trump campaign "colluded" with the Russians during the election. Yates replied that she could not answer that question because it would require her to reveal classified information.
'We told them so they could take action'
Graham then asked Yates what she told the White House about Michael Flynn and his conversations with Russia's ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, during the transition period.
Yates replied that she had had "two in-person meetings and one phone call" with White House counsel Don McGahn in January, between January 26-30, about Michael Flynn.
"I told him [McGahn] I had a very sensitive matter I needed to discuss wth him that I couldn't discuss on the phone," Yates recalled. She said that she and another career Justice Department official met with McGahn and one of his associates in his office on January 26. There, she told him that there had been press accounts related to Flynn's contact with Russian officials "that we knew to be untrue."
Flynn originally told Vice President Mike Pence that the issue of sanctions was never discussed in his conversations with Sergey Kislyak. So, 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.
Trump, who asked for Flynn's resignation after reports surfaced that he had misled Pence about his conversations with Kislyak, has said he was not aware that Flynn had discussed the issue of US sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
Yates said on Monday that she warned McGahn about Flynn largely because the DOJ felt Pence "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."
Flynn was asked to resign roughly 18 days after Yates first warned McGahn about his conversations with Kislyak.
Yates noted that the Russians "also knew what Flynn had done, and that he had misled the vice president and others. This was a problem, becase 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 shoud 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.
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 evidence the department had of Flynn's conversations 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.
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. 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.
'We were not even told' about the travel ban
Switching gears, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz asked Yates about her decision not to enforce Trump's first immigration order, grilling her on whether she had the authority to "direct the Department of Justice to defy" a president's executive order in January.
Yates replied that she did not direct the DOJ to defy the president's order, but that "in this particular interest, we were talking about the fundamental issue of religious freedom, so it was appropriate for us to look at the intent" of the immigration order. She added that department leadership and DOJ national security experts were "not consulted" about the order before it was issued.
"We were not even told" about it, Yates said. "We learned about it from media reports."
Republican Sen. John Kennedy picked up where Cruz left off, asking Yates whether there were "reasonable arguments that could be made" in the defense of Trump's immigration order.
Yates replied that she "was not convinced" that the order was constitutional, so she could not in good faith send DOJ lawyers to defend an order that they did not believe to be lawful.
"To defend this executive order would require lawyers to go in and argue that this order had nothing to do with religion," Yates said.
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