There was supposed to be a public hearing on Tuesday that could have shed important light on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, including whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian operatives.
But House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) abruptly cancelled the hearing — which was scheduled to include former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, former DNI James Clapper, and former CIA Director John Brennan — late last week. Ranking member Adam Schiff (D-CA) called it an “attempt to choke off public info.”
Now, thanks to letters between Yates and the Justice Department reviewed by the Washington Post, it appears the Trump administration could have tried to prevent Yates from testifying about links between Russia and the Trump campaign.
The letters, sent earlier this month, said Yates could not testify freely at a congressional hearing about Trump’s potential association with Russia because the topics “are likely covered by the presidential communications privilege.” Justice Department officials recommended she consult with the White House when deciding what details to disclose to the Intelligence Committee.
The White House called the Post’s story “entirely false” in an unsigned statement.
Yates, while still acting attorney general, played a central role in the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s discussions with the Russian ambassador, and his withholding of information from the Trump administration, before Trump asked for his resignation.
In January, Yates told the White House Counsel, Donald McGahn, that the White House was getting its facts wrong in public statements about Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador.
In a letter — dated March 23, the day before Nunes cancelled Tuesday’s hearing — Yates’ lawyer David O’Neill argued that the Justice Department was wrong to conclude that all she learned and did at the agency are client confidences. He said that she “will avoid discussing classified information and details that could compromise investigations” in the hearing.
The next day — Friday, March 24 — O’Neill wrote to McGahn and said that because White House officials had already talked about it, Yates was allowed to speak about her knowledge of the relevant January communications about Flynn.
The White House’s reply to this entire saga is that because they did not reply to the Friday letter from O’Neill, which also evidently contained a deadline, they were not “asserting executive privilege over these matters,” and Yates was free to testify. A White House deputy press secretary said “we took NO action therefore not blocking her.”
Nunes cancelled the meeting that same day.
Much of the recent news about this inquiry has focused on how Nunes went to the White House grounds to secretly meet with a source the night before his bizarre disclosure that he “recently confirmed that on numerous occasions the intelligence community incidentally collected information about US citizens involved in the Trump transition.”
This heralds back to Trump’s Twitter-based accusation, already debunked, that former President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. Nunes has attempted to keep his focus on “the possible improper unmasking of names of U.S. citizens,” even as calls mount for him to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
Jeremy Bash, who was chief of staff at both the CIA and the Defense Department after being the chief minority counsel to the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN that the “real story” had nothing to do with Nunes’ “midnight run” to the White House.
It’s really that they wanted to cancel the hearing this week. The hearing this week was going to hear from Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, and I’m told that she had some very interesting things to tell the committee, to tell the public about when she told the White House counsel that Mike Flynn had in fact been lying to the Vice President, and she was only going to be able to speak those things in the context of a congressional hearing, and so the White House and the chairman needed to shut her down.
“This was an elaborately choreographed gag order on Sally Yates,” Bash concluded.
Interesting—Jeremy Bash implies Sally Yates had revelations for House Intel about when she told WH that Flynn lied. Nunes nixed the hearing. pic.twitter.com/vKCd1jdoc5
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) March 28, 2017
Yates, formerly Deputy Attorney General, was only acting Attorney General for 11 days because Trump fired her after he said in a White House statement that she had “betrayed the Department of Justice” by refusing to enforce the president’s Muslim ban executive order.
The irony being that the current Attorney General, former Senator Jeff Sessions, lauded her for saying she would “follow the law” and give “independent legal advice to the president,” should the president asked “for something improper” or “unlawful.”
At Tuesday afternoon’s White House press briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer provided the White House’s timeline of what happened with regard to Yates’ testimony:
As a matter of fact, I would like to walk you through the sequence of events just to make sure everyone is abundantly clear on what happened. On March 14th, Chairman Nunes and Ranking Member Schiff invited Sally Yates to testify on March 28th. On March 23rd Yates’ attorney sent a letter to the Department of Justice asking for their consent to testify without constraints. March 24th, the Department of Justice responded ‘the president owns those privileges’ to discuss the communications they were requesting to talk about and referred them to the White House. Also on the 24th, Ms. Yates’ attorney sent a letter to the White House counsel requesting that consent specifically stating if they did not receive a response by March 27th at 10:00 a.m. they would, quote, ‘conclude the White House does not assert executive privilege over these matters.’ The White House did not respond and took no action that prevented Ms. Yates from testifying. That’s the story, that’s what the documents show, and with that, I’m glad to take some questions.
In response to a question, Spicer said he hoped Yates testifies before the committee.
Press Secretary Spicer on former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates: "I hope she testifies. I look forward to it" https://t.co/YJOwBgYWKO
— NBC News (@NBCNews) March 28, 2017
I hope she testifies. I look forward to it. Let’s be honest, the hearing was never — was actually never notified. If they choose to move forward, great. We have no problem with her testifying, plain and simple. The report in The Washington Post is 100 percent false. The letters that they frankly publish on their website all back up everything I just read… We didn’t respond, we encouraged them to go ahead. But to suggest in any way, shape, or form that we stood in the way of that is 100 percent false.
Later Spicer was asked if Chairman Nunes’ decision to cancel the hearing had “anything to do with pressure from the White House,” and he said, “No.”