Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates told a Senate panel Wednesday that in the days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden made no attempt to target incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn for prosecution to undermine the new administration.
Yates, describing a Jan. 5, 2017, Oval Office meeting to discuss Russian interference in the 2016 election, said she was surprised to learn from Obama that the FBI had intercepted Flynn’s conversations with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in which the incoming national security adviser sought to “neuter” recently imposed sanctions on the Kremlin for its election intervention.
“My memory is clear,” Yates told the Senate Judiciary Committee, adding that Obama urged caution when sharing information with Flynn during the transition to the Trump administration.
“No such thing happened,” Yates said, when later pressed whether administration officials sought to pursue a Flynn inquiry. “That meeting was not about an investigation at all. That would have set off alarms for me.”
The Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee called the former Obama administration official as part of its ongoing review of the Russia inquiry and the early days of the investigation into Flynn, who would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Kislyak. Flynn moved to withdraw that guilty plea in January, claiming the government had breached the plea agreement.
While Flynn awaited sentencing, the Justice Department in May abruptly abandoned the prosecution over the objection of career prosecutors. The move was challenged by the sentencing judge, who has since asked a federal appeals court to reconsider Justice’s decision, leaving the retired Army lieutenant general’s fate uncertain, nearly three years after he first pleaded guilty.
In her testimony Wednesday, Yates differed sharply with the current Justice Department decision and defended the Flynn investigation as legitimate, referring to Flynn’s ultimate decision to plead guilty.
“I was very surprised,” she said of the decision to drop the case. “The circumstances here (in the Flynn case) called out” for the FBI to pursue its investigation.
But Yates, who testified by video, also expressed deep concerns about the FBI’s conduct in the early days of the Russia investigation, taking specific issue with then-FBI Director James Comey.
Yates described a tense encounter with Comey following the 2017 Oval Office meeting, saying that she upbraided the FBI director for not informing her of the intercepted Flynn conversations prior to the briefing with the president.
At the time, she said, the FBI was not providing adequate briefings on the agency’s activities.
Asked by Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., whether Comey had gone “rogue,” Yates responded: “You could use that term, yes.”
Yates also said she would not have signed off on the surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page had she known that the FBI’s wire-tap warrant was deeply flawed.
Last year, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog found that the surveillance warrant was riddled with errors, raising questions about its justification.
The department’s inspector general identified 17 separate inaccuracies in the surveillance applications. The inspector general, however, concluded the FBI was legally justified in launching its inquiry into Russian election interference.
“Certainly, I regret” that false information was submitted to support the warrant, Yates told lawmakers.
Prior to Wednesday’s hearing, Trump targeted Yates via Twitter, saying the career Justice official has “zero credibility.”
“She was a part of the greatest political crime of the Century, and Obama Biden knew EVERYTHING!” Trump wrote.
Senate Republicans followed Trump’s lead, asserting that the Obama Justice Department had sought to derail Trump’s campaign.
At one point, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., asked Yates whether she “despised” Trump.
“I don’t despise anyone,” Yates responded. “I don’t respect the manner in which he has carried out the presidency.”
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Yates, ultimately fired by Trump for refusing to carry out his executive order banning travelers to the U.S. from certain Muslim countries, first outlined her concerns about Flynn in explosive testimony three years ago before the same committee, saying the former national security adviser’s lies about his contacts with Kislyak extended to Vice President Mike Pence.
“You don’t want a situation where a national security adviser could get blackmailed by the Russians,’’ Yates told the committee then.
Yates is the second high-profile witness called by the panel as part of its inquiry.
In June, former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, a key player in the sprawling Russia investigation that shadowed much of Trump’s presidency, defended his oversight of the probe while acknowledging flaws in the FBI’s surveillance process.
“Senators, whenever agents or prosecutors make serious mistakes or engage in misconduct, the Department of Justice must take remedial action. And if existing policies fall short, those policies need to be changed,” Rosenstein said in his opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Ultimately, Rosenstein acknowledged he is responsible for the missteps that happened in the early days of the Russia investigation.
“I’m accountable. I feel accountable. … I think the issue is, ‘How do we fix the problem?'” Rosenstein said.
Trump and his allies have sought to frame the entire Russia investigation as a hoax and a witch hunt against the president, seizing on some aspects of Crossfire Hurricane, the code name for the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s election meddling and possible ties to the Trump campaign.
Republicans have seized on the inspector general’s findings on the flawed surveillance of Page to cast a sprawling inquiry by Russia special counsel Robert Mueller as illegitimate.
Yates was deputy attorney general under former president Barack Obama. She became the acting attorney general when former attorney general Loretta Lynch resigned following Trump’s election.
Contributing: Kristine Phillips
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sally Yates: Obama, Biden did not push Michael Flynn inquiry