Yates: Alarm about Russian blackmail led to warning on Flynn

Image 1 of 3

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Former acting attorney general Sally Yates testified under oath for the first time about her warning to the Trump administration in January about Michael Flynn, President Trump's pick for National Security Advisor, being vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian government.

"We felt like the Vice-President was entitled to know that the information he had been given and that he was relaying to the American public wasn't true," Yates testified.

Yates said after hearing the Trump administration insist that Flynn had not discussed sanctions with Russian officials, she informed the White House counsel Don McGahn in late January at two meetings and once in a phone call that intelligence transcripts show Flynn did speak with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak multiple times in December and discussed sanctions.

"Not only did we believe that the Russians knew this, but they'd likely had proof of this information. And that created a compromise situation. A situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians," Yates told the Senate Judiciary Committee. Flynn resigned eighteen days later on February 13th after news reports about his meetings with the Russian ambassador.

Prior to Flynn's resignation, President Trump fired Yates on January 30th over her opposition to his Executive Order imposing a travel ban on certain Muslim countries.

Yates testimony comes as Congress and the FBI investigate Flynn and members of the Trump campaign for any connection to the Russian hacking interference in the U.S. presidential election.

President Trump tweeted Monday "The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?" He also sent a tweet saying Yates "said nothing but old news!"

"It's not new to him because he's known about it a long time," said U.C. Berkeley political science professor Sean Gailmard. He says while President Trump was briefed months earlier about the intelligence information,  Yates' testimony under oath provided details to the public on the record for the first time.

"This is new information and pretty significant," Gailmard said, "The fact that this is coming from members of the President's own party in the Senate, that they are behind these hearings is particularly informative for how this will land with the White House. 750 they can't just say to the public that hey, this is just the Democrats causing trouble for us."

Senate Republicans on the committee also questioned Yates and former director of national intelligence James Clapper about how the intelligence reports on Flynn were leaked to the press.

"Have either of you have ever been an anonymous source in a news report about matters related to Mr. Trump's associates' or Russia's attempts to meddle in the election?" asked Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Louisiana, the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, asked them.

Clapper replied "no" and Yates followed with her answer, "Absolutely not."

Yates' testimony, coupled with the revelation hours earlier that President Barack Obama himself had warned Trump against hiring Flynn shortly after the November election, made clear that alarms about Flynn had reached the highest levels of the U.S. government months before Flynn had been an adviser to Donald Trump and an outspoken supporter of his presidential candidacy in the 2016 campaign..

Trump shouldered into the conversation early in the morning, tweeting that it was the Obama administration, not he, that had given Lt. Gen. Flynn "the highest security clearance" when he worked at the Pentagon. Trump made no mention of the fact that Flynn had been fired from his high position by the Obama administration in 2014.

Yates filled in new details of the events of Jan. 26, describing contacting McGahn in the morning and telling him she had something sensitive to discuss in person. Later that day, at the White House, she told him there was an alarming discrepancy between how Trump officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, were characterizing Flynn's contacts with Kislyak and what intelligence officials knew to be true based on recordings of those calls.

Separately on Monday, former Obama officials said he had raised general concerns about Flynn with Trump and had told the incoming president there were better people for the national security post. Trump's press secretary Sean Spicer said in response that if Obama "was seriously concerned" about Flynn's connections to Russia or other foreign countries, he should have withheld Flynn's security clearance. Flynn served under Obama as defense intelligence chief before Obama dismissed him.

Trump repeatedly has said he has no ties to Russia and isn't aware of any involvement by his aides in any Russian interference in the election. He's dismissed FBI and congressional investigations into his campaign's possible ties to the election meddling as a "hoax" driven by Democrats bitter over losing the White House.

The Associated Press reported last week that one sign taken as a warning by Obama officials about Flynn's contacts with Kislyak was a request by a member of Trump's own transition team made to national security officials in the Obama White House for the classified CIA profile of Kislyak. The AP interviewed a host of former U.S. officials, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive national security information.

Yates' warning about Flynn in January capped weeks of building concern among top Obama officials, former officials told the AP. Obama himself that month told one of his closest advisers that the FBI, which by then had been investigating Trump associates' possible ties to Russia for about six months, seemed particularly focused on Flynn.

Yates, a longtime federal prosecutor and Obama administration holdover, had been scheduled to appear in March before the House intelligence committee, but that hearing was canceled.