The White House knew National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian government at least 18 days before he was forced out of his job, according to the former acting US Attorney General Sally Yates who has testified to a Senate committee that she warned officials he was “compromised”.
Mr Flynn was forced to resign from President Donald Trump's administration having seemingly misled the White House over contact he had with Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, in a scandal that rocked the early days of Mr Trump's presidency. The hearing was clearly on Mr Trump's mind, with the President claiming in a tweet following the testimony that it was “nothing but old news”.
Ms Yates testified that she met with White House Counsel Donald McGahn on 26 January to tell him that she had information that public statements by Vice President Mike Pence about the brief nature of conversations between Mr Flynn and Mr Kislyak were false – and that the conversations in December were extensive and included discussions about US sanctions on Russia.
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“The Russians also knew about what General Flynn had done, and the Russians also knew that General Flynn had misled the Vice President and others,” Ms Yates said before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee. “That created ... A situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”
“To state the obvious: You don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians,” Ms Yates added.
Speaking for the first time publicly about the first big scandal of the Trump presidency, Ms Yate's testimony is part of the larger investigations by both sides of Congress into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, with US intelligence services believing this was aimed at helping Mr Trump. The House and the Senate are also investigating whether there was any collusion between members of Mr Trump's team and Russia.
Ms Yates was appearing in front of the committee with James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence under President Barack Obama who retired when Mr Trump took office – but it was clear Ms Yates was the box office draw.
During her testimony, Ms Yates said she again met with Mr McGahn on 27 January to discuss his concerns. She said Mr McGahn had asked her how Mr Flynn had fared during an interview with the FBI earlier that week, as well as why it would matter to the Justice Department if one White House official lies to another. He also asked about the likelihood that the agency would pursue a criminal case.
Mr McGahn requested to see the underlying evidence, Ms Yates said, but added that she did not know if the Justice Department followed up with this request.
Ms Yates was fired as acting Attorney General by Mr Trump over the unrelated matter of her refusal to defend his first attempt at a travel ban, which would have restricted travel from seven majority-Muslim countries. Mr Flynn resigned from his post on 13 February, after media reports began to surface about his actions.
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Democrats on the committee expressed concern as to why Mr Flynn wasn't immediately dismissed. Senator Al Franken said that he didn’t understand why Mr McGahn didn’t realise why it matters to the Justice Department if White House officials lie to each other.
Mr Franken said that there are policies that deal with who receives security clearance and who does not, and that clearance holders – including Mr Flynn – must always demonstrate trustworthiness and freedom from potential coercion.
“Why wouldn’t you a fire a guy who did this?” Mr Franken said, referring to why Mr Trump did not dismiss Mr Flynn for his misleading statements immediately. Mr Franken speculated that the only explanation he could think of was that there were other Trump administration officials who had contacts with the Russian government.
It was a day of drama outside the hearing too, with news that Mr Obama had warned Mr Trump, then president-elect, not to give the post of National Security Adviser in his administration to Mr Flynn.
The Democratic president gave the warning in an Oval Office meeting with Mr Trump two days after the Republican's surprise election win on 8 November. The warning, first reported by NBC News via former Obama aides, came up during a discussion of White House personnel.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer, confirmed that was the case: “It's true that the president, President Obama, made it known that he wasn't exactly a fan of General Flynn's, which frankly shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, given that General Flynn had worked for President Obama, was an outspoken critic of President Obama's shortcomings.”
Mr Flynn had been pushed out by Mr Obama in 2014 from his job as director of the military's Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA – which he had taken up in 2012.
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The near three-hour hearing often veered off topic. Republican Senators repeatedly pressed Ms Yates on her refusal to defend the Trump administration's travel ban.
The day ended as it began with Mr Trump sounding off about the hearing on Twitter. Hours before the testimony, Mr Trump insinuated that Ms Yates may have leaked information on Mr Flynn to the media.
“Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Council,” Mr Trump wrote on Twitter, apparently misspelling the word counsel. Ms Yates said during the hearing she did not leak classified information. Mr Trump also tweeted that it was the Obama administration, not he, that had given Mr Flynn “the highest security clearance” when he worked at the Pentagon.
Later in the day, Mr Trump repeated his denial of any collusion with Russia, tweeting: “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?”