There was a lot of dissembling and double-talk in Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building on Monday afternoon, when Sally Yates, the former acting Attorney General, and James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence, testified at a Senate subcommittee hearing that was supposed to be about Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Many of the Republican senators at the hearing seemed eager to discuss almost anything except Yates’s testimony about the warnings that she delivered to the White House in late January concerning the potential vulnerability to Russian blackmail of Michael Flynn, who was then serving as Donald Trump’s national-security adviser.
Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, asked the two witnesses whether they had ever served as anonymous sources for stories about Trump and his associates, or asked others to act as sources. (Yates and Clapper both said that they hadn’t.) John Cornyn, of Texas, insisted that questions about “unmasking” U.S. citizens caught up in surveillance of foreign targets were “casting suspicion” on the U.S. intelligence community. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, said that the “bottom line” was that he wanted to know who informed the Washington Post that, on December 29th of last year, Flynn had spoken about U.S. sanctions on Russia with Moscow’s Ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak. But the prize for obfuscaton went to Ted Cruz, also of Texas, who brought up Hillary Clinton’s e-mails—yes, them.
None of this should detract from the key issues that the hearing raised: How was Flynn able to keep his job for eighteen days after Yates relayed her warning to Donald McGahn, the White House counsel? Was there an attempted coverup? And will the Republicans ever get serious about inquiring into Trump’s ties to Russia?
Yates told the senators that she and a colleague met with McGahn and a couple of his colleagues on January 26th, and told them that “there were a number of press accounts of statements that had been made by the Vice-President and other high-ranking White House officials about General Flynn’s conduct that we knew to be untrue. And we told them how we knew that this—how we had this information, how we had acquired it, and how we knew that it was untrue.”
At that stage, a week into Trump’s Presidency, Pence had just gone on television and claimed that Flynn hadn’t raised the subject of sanctions when he spoke to Kislyak. Pence said that he’d spoken to Flynn directly about the matter. At the hearing on Monday, citing an inability to reveal classified information, Yates wouldn’t tell the senators what information the Justice Department had, or where it came from, but it has been widely reported that a U.S. intelligence agency recorded a December 29th call between Flynn and Kislyak.
Yates, speaking precisely and unhurriedly, did say that she and her colleague took McGahn “through, in a fair amount of detail of the underlying conduct, what General Flynn had done,” and that they then explained some of their concerns. The Vice-President and others “were entitled to know that the statements they were making weren’t true.” The American people had been misled. And the Russians knew that Flynn had lied to Pence. “That created a compromise situation,” Yates explained. “A situation, essentially, where the national-security adviser could be blackmailed by the Russians.”
Yates added, “Finally, we told them that we were giving them all of this information so that they could take action, the action that they deemed appropriate.” In another Administration, Flynn would have been sent packing by nightfall. Instead, he was allowed to keep his job for another eighteen days, during which he oversaw meetings of the National Security Council, helped coördinate the Administration’s reaction to a North Korean missile launch, and sat in on a telephone conversation between Trump and Vladimir Putin. Flynn was finally forced to resign on February 13th, but only after the Washington Post published articles on Yates’s weeks-old warning to the White House.
Why didn’t Trump fire Flynn immediately? Yates couldn’t enlighten us on that, but she did provide a glimpse at the White House’s initial reaction to the news that it had a deceiver and potential blackmail victim in its midst.
On the afternoon of Friday, January 27th, Yates said, she met with McGahn and his colleagues for a second time, at their request. McGahn’s first question: “Why does it matter to the Department of Justice if one White House official lies to another?” Yates said that she repeated some of the concerns she had expressed the previous day, including the fact that, “to state the obvious, you don’t want your national-security adviser compromised with the Russians.”
McGahn also was interested in “the applicability of criminal statutes and the likelihood that the Department of Justice would pursue a criminal case,” Yates recalled. He also expressed some concern that taking action against Flynn might interfere with the investigation of him—a concern Yates said she sought to assuage, noting that the F.B.I. had already interviewed Flynn. Finally, McGahn asked to see the underlying evidence that Yates was relying on. Yates said she made arrangements for him and his colleagues to visit the Justice Department and do this, but she left the government before it happened, and couldn’t say whether it ever did.
It is notable that McGahn didn’t inquire whether there was any evidence that the Russians were actually blackmailing Flynn, or whether the Justice Department knew anything else about him that was potentially incriminating. In Yates’s telling, the White House counsel seemed more interested in finding out how far the Justice Department would go in its investigation, and whether it really had the goods on the national-security adviser.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, has said that McGahn eventually decided the D.O.J. didn’t have the goods. On February 14th, just after Flynn resigned, Spicer said that the White House counsel had determined nothing illegal happened on the call between Flynn and Kislyak. The reason Trump asked for his national-security adviser’s resignation was because he believed that there had been a breach of trust between Flynn and Pence, Spicer added.
But would Trump have done anything if the Washington Post hadn’t reported on Yates’s warning? It seems highly unlikely. Spicer has also said that McGahn briefed the President shortly after meeting Yates, which means Trump was aware that Flynn had potentially lied to Pence weeks before he forced him out. And, even after he had demanded Flynn’s resignation, Trump said that his former adviser “was just doing his job” in talking to Kislyak, and hadn’t done anything wrong.
It is easy to see why Trump would think this way. Throughout his campaign, he called for closer relations with Putin’s Russia. On several occasions, he intimated that, as part of this coming together, certain U.S. sanctions could be relaxed or rescinded. If Flynn conveyed the same message to Kislyak, directly or indirectly, he would only have been confirming his boss’s long-standing position. (This leaves open the question of whether Flynn violated the ancient Logan Act, which says that a private person can’t try to conduct foreign policy without the permission of the U.S. government, which at that point was still the Obama Administration.)
The larger question, of course, is why Trump wanted to improve relations with Russia in the first place, and whether he or any of his associates are politically or financially beholden to the Kremlin. On this, the hearing didn’t convey much new information, although, toward the end of the afternoon, Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat, did offer up some speculation. “Maybe, just maybe” the reason Trump didn’t fire Flynn earlier, Franken suggested, was because “there are other people in his Administration who met secretly with the Russians and didn’t reveal it until later, until they were caught.” Maybe this was the reason that “it took him eighteen days, until it became public, to get rid of Mike Flynn, who is a danger to this republic.”
At the end of this pointed rumination, Franken jokingly asked Yates whether she cared to comment on it. Having gotten her message across very effectively, despite all the G.O.P. distractions, the fifty-six-year-old-Atlanta native wisely refused to be drawn. “I don’t think I’m going to touch that, Senator,” she said. “Thank you.”