THE TRUE STORY of Michael Flynn’s departure from the Trump White House is shaping up to be very different from the story the White House pushed forward at the time of his resignation as national security adviser.
On Monday afternoon, after weeks of delay, Congress heard public testimony from Sally Yates, a former career prosecutor at the Department of Justice who served as acting attorney general during the first days of Trump’s presidency. Yates testified that she warned Donald F. McGahn II, Trump’s White House counsel, that Flynn’s contacts with the Russian government differed from claims that Vice President Mike Pence and others had made publicly.
In January, Pence went on a Sunday talk show and said that Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, had “nothing whatsoever” to do with sanctions imposed by the outgoing Obama administration on the Russian government. Now it appears that Flynn and Kislyak did talk about sanctions.
“The Vice President was unknowingly making false statements to the public,” is how Yates put it.
In one of two meetings with McGahn, she told the White House that Flynn’s apparent deception made him vulnerable to blackmail. “We were giving them [the White House] this information so that they could take action,” Yates said in her testimony. The question of whether to fire Flynn was not her call to make, she added.
For the next 18 days after Yates talked with McGahn, Trump appears to have taken no action on Flynn, who continued to serve in his post as national security adviser. Only when word of Yates’s warning reached the Washington Post, and the paper was getting set to publish, did Flynn finally resign. By comparing Yates’s testimony about Flynn’s departure to past statements made by the Trump administration, it appears that the resignation set off a fresh round of deception in the White House.
On February 14, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, characterized Yates’s warning as “a heads-up.”
“The White House counsel informed the president immediately,” Spicer said. “The president asked him to conduct a review of whether there was a legal situation there. That was immediately determined that there wasn’t.”
Spicer’s words appear to contradict what Trump himself told reporters four days earlier when asked about reports that Flynn had misled the administration about contacts with Kislyak. “I don’t know about that,” Trump said. “I haven’t seen it.”
Spicer attempted to frame Yates’s warning as casual advice, but in fact, as Yates explained on Monday, her warning was clear and grave — Flynn had deceived the vice president, and, as a result, could be blackmailed by the Russians, who were likely aware of his deception. Yates’s concerns could not, she told McGahn, be discussed by phone. She met McGahn that same day in his secure White House office, accompanied, she said, by another senior career official from the Department of Justice.
Flynn had recently been interviewed by the F.B.I. about his Russian contacts. “Mr. McGahn asked me how he did and I declined to give him an answer to that,” Yates testified. She made clear that it wasn’t just Flynn’s apparent deceptiveness that had drawn her attention. “The underlying conduct that General Flynn engaged in was problematic in and of itself,” she told the hearing on Monday. When senators asked what that conduct was, Yates declined to answer, saying that it was classified.
Nor was Yates the only one to warn the Trump White House about Flynn. CNN has reported that Obama personally raised his concerns about Flynn in person with Trump, two days after the election. A few days later, on November 18, Rep. Elijah Cummings sent Vice President Pence a letter questioning Flynn’s ethics relating to his lobbying for a Turkish company and his attendance at a gala dinner for Russia Today in Moscow, where Flynn was seated next to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Flynn received more than $45,000 for the trip.
Flynn’s letter of resignation, dated February 13 and published on White House letterhead, states that he stepped down because he “inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador.” Flynn suggested that his phone calls with Kislyak were routine, “standard practice in any transition of this magnitude.”
But Yates made clear in her testimony that her concerns ran deeper than incomplete information. At one point, McGahn had asked Yates why it mattered to the Department of Justice if one White House official lied to another White House official. Yates told him that it wasn’t just Flynn’s fudging about the Russia calls that troubled her and the two senior national security officials who she consulted before taking up the issue with the White House. Something about the content of Flynn’s calls with Russian officials had prompted the department’s national security division to take a closer look.
In a second meeting the following day, McGahn asked Yates whether it would be possible to look at the evidence — presumably transcripts of wiretapped conversations — that was driving the DOJ’s concerns about Flynn. Yates said she made the necessary arrangements for McGahn to look at the evidence and called him on the morning of the following Monday, January 30, to let him know. She did not hear back from McGahn, she said, until that afternoon. Trump fired Yates that same day, reportedly for refusing to defend an executive order that closed U.S. borders to refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. (A federal court later found that order to be unconstitutional; the administration has appealed.)
Retired General James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, also gave testimony before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. Clapper and Yates, seated beside each other, reiterated what the intelligence community has asserted many times—that the Russian government sought to interfere in the presidential election. Whether Kislyak’s extensive contacts with senior members of Trump’s team over the course of the campaign had anything to do with Russia’s efforts to swing the election in Trump’s favor is still unknown.
Last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that she had not seen evidence of collusion between Trump’s associates and the Russians during the campaign. On Monday, Clapper stood by a report from the intelligence community that detailed evidence of Russian influence, but not collusion, and that he wasn’t aware of evidence of collusion between the Trump administration and the Russians.
“I can’t answer that,” Yates said, when asked about Trump-Russia collusion. “Just because I say I can’t answer it,” she clarified moments later, “You should not draw from that an assumption that means the answer is yes.”
Despite the discrepancies between Yates’s account and prior statements by the White House, Trump appears to have scored the hearing as a win. On Monday evening, Trump pumped out four quick tweets and then changed the background of his Twitter profile to highlight Clapper’s words. Many noticed; not all were convinced: