On Monday, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified she personally informed the White House on January 26 that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn was lying about his pre-inauguration communications with the Russian ambassador, and therefore at risk of being blackmailed by Russia. Yates’ warning came nearly three weeks before Flynn was finally fired by President Trump.
During his news conference on Tuesday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer tried to account for that 18-day gap by asserting that Yates is a Clinton-supporting Democrat, and was thus viewed with skepticism when she presented information about Flynn’s lies to White House officials.
Spicer characterized Yates — a 27-year veteran of the Department of Justice who was confirmed as deputy attorney general in an 84–12 Senate vote in 2015 — as “someone who is not exactly a support of the president’s agenda, who a couple days after this first conversation took place refused to uphold a lawsuit order of the president’s, who is not exactly someone who was excited about President Trump taking office or his agenda.”
“Just because someone comes in and gives you a heads up about something and says, ‘I want to share some information,’ doesn’t meant you immediately jump the gun and go take an action,” Spicer added. “I think if you flip this scenario and say, what if we had just dismissed someone because a political opponent of the president had made an utterance, you would argue that it was pretty irrational to act in that matter. We did what we were supposed to do.”
When a reporter pushed back, asking Spicer why he characterized Yates as a “political opponent of the president,” he replied that she was “appointed by the Obama administration and a strong supporter of Clinton.”
Spicer tries to diminish Yates by saying she was a "strong supporter of Clinton."
Is there any evidence of that? pic.twitter.com/iw7FG6VIcY
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) May 9, 2017
Later during the news conference, a reporter asked Spicer to share the evidence he has of Yates’ partisanship. He cited rumors.
FEC shows no donations from Sally Yates to anyone. Including Hillary Clinton. What is evidence, as Spicer claims, of her supporting Clinton?
— Matt Viser (@mviser) May 9, 2017
“I think she’s made some — you know — I think she, was widely rumored to play a large role in the Justice Department if Hillary Clinton had win — won,” Spicer said.
Yates, however, presented the White House with far more than a “heads up about something” when she met with White House Counsel Don McGahn on January 26.
The information that Yates provided McGahn — which the White House counsel passed along to Trump that same day — was based on the FBI’s interview of Flynn at the White House on January 24. The account Flynn offered the FBI about his pre-inauguration communications with the Russian ambassador contradicted what the FBI independently knew about those communications thanks to incidental collection. Flynn’s lies were repeated publicly by then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence during a Fox News interview on January 15 — an interview during which Pence categorically denied any recent communication between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
According to an ABC News timeline based on Yates’ testimony, she began her meeting with McGahn by “laying out the press accounts and statements made by Vice President Mike Pence and other high-ranking White House officials about Flynn’s conduct ‘that we knew not to be the truth.’”
“She told McGahn how the DOJ acquired that information and walked through Flynn’s conduct ‘in a fair amount of detail,’” the ABC report continues. “She explained to McGahn the reasons why the DOJ was informing the White House of this — Flynn’s conduct was ‘problematic in and of itself,’ they believed Pence was entitled to know the information about Flynn he was spreading ‘wasn’t true,’ and that the American people had been misled about Flynn’s actions… Yates stressed that one of the reasons why the DOJ decided to notify McGahn was because the Russians were aware of Flynn’s conduct, including that Flynn had misled Pence and that she had not accused Pence of ‘knowingly providing false information to the American people.’”
Yates and McGahn met again the next day. Yates said during her testimony on Monday that, instead of being concerned about Flynn, “one of the questions Mr. McGahn asked me when I went back over the second day was essentially, why does it matter to DOJ if one White House official lies to another White House official?”
“We explained to him it was a whole lot more than that and went back over the same concerns that we had raised with them the prior day, the concern first about the underlying conduct itself — that he had lied to the Vice President and others, that the American public had been misled — and then importantly that every time this lie was repeated — and the misrepresentations were getting more and more specific as they were coming out — every time that happened, it increased the compromise. And to state the obvious you don’t want your National Security Adviser compromised with the Russians.”
Three days later, Yates was fired for refusing to implement Trump’s Muslim ban — a judgment that has since been vindicated by numerous federal courts that have come to the same conclusion, despite Spicer’s characterization of the ban as a “lawful order” on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Flynn kept working at the White House for nearly another two weeks. Despite the acting attorney general’s warnings about possible Russian blackmail, Flynn even sat in on President Trump’s first phone call with Vladimir Putin on January 29.
During his presser on Tuesday, a reporter asked Spicer about Flynn’s participation in the Putin phone call, saying, “While he’s under investigation, why is he being allowed to participate as the national security adviser?”
“We’re not going to relitigate the past on this,” Spicer said. “I think the president made the right decision, and we’ve moved on.”