DOJ and White House Counsel Discussed Criminal Prosecution of Michael Flynn
The acting attorney general feared Trump’s national security adviser could be blackmailed by the Russians.
Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates said Monday that she discussed with Donald Trump’s White House counsel possible criminal charges related to Michael Flynn’s communications with Russian officials.
“To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security advisor compromised by the Russians,” Yates testified during a hotly anticipated hearing examining Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
Amid two congressional probes examining that Kremlin campaign and a sprawling FBI counterintelligence investigation looking at possible collusion between Trump aides and the Kremlin, Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, has emerged as a central figure. Trump fired him less than a month into the job after the Washington Post reported that he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the content of his conversations with a Russian diplomat.
Yates, who was fired at the end of January for challenging the legality of President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, revealed on Monday in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that she had three meetings with Don McGahn, the White House legal counsel, to discuss Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
As the Obama administration prepared to hit Moscow with sanctions over its alleged interference in the U.S. presidential campaign, Flynn had a series of conversations with Kislyak. Yates said on Monday that after Pence denied that Flynn and Kislyak had discussed sanctions, she grew concerned that the national security advisor had lied to his superior, and that Moscow could use that information to blackmail him.
Yates and McGhan met on Jan. 26 in the White House legal counsel’s office along with a senior member of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. She told McGann that Lt. Gen. Flynn’s conduct, as well as his decision to lie about it, was “problematic.” The Russians, aware of Flynn’s lies, could easily blackmail him, Yates concluded.
“That created a compromised situation,” Yates said.
In a second meeting the next day, McGhan pressed Yates on several issues, including why it mattered to the Justice Department when one White House official lies to another. Yates testified that Flynn’s lie to Pence, given Russian knowledge of the conversation, presented special circumstances that made him vulnerable to pressure.
Yates said on Monday that McGhan asked her about the likelihood that the Justice Department would bring criminal charges against Flynn and the federal statutes that might be used to indict the former national security advisor. Pressed on Monday what charges could be brought, Yates refused to answer.
At the end of the second meeting, Yates scheduled a follow-up call to arrange for McGhan to review the underlying evidence of Flynn’s communications — a meeting that took place on the afternoon of Jan. 30, the same day she was fired.
President Trump asked for Flynn’s resignation, which he handed over late on Feb. 13.
Yates declined to comment on whether the Justice Department or FBI had uncovered evidence that Trump or his associates actively colluded with Russian officials to sway the election, a conclusion former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has repeatedly said he found no evidence for. “Just because I say I can’t answer … you shouldn’t draw from than an assumption that the answer is yes,” she said.
Yates spent 27 years in the Justice Department, serving in both Republican and Democratic administrations. The morning of the hearing, unnamed Obama officials told multiple major media outlets that President Barack Obama warned President Trump about his concerns over Flynn before he took office — advice the White House subsequently downplayed as political in nature.
Flynn served as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Obama, but was fired over clashes with leadership and management style.
Testifying at the same hearing, Clapper revealed that the intelligence community estimated Russia spent less than $200 million on its efforts to disrupt the U.S. elections, not counting subsidies to Kremlin-funded media outlet RT.
“Russia’s influence activities in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election constituted the high-water mark of their long-running efforts since the 1960s to disrupt and influence our elections,” he said Monday. “They must be congratulating themselves for having exceeded their wildest expectations.”
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Jenna McLaughlin is Foreign Policy's intelligence reporter. You can reach her on Signal at 203-537-3949. @JennaMC_Laugh