Former acting attorney general Sally Yates told a Senate hearing Monday she feared former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn was compromised by Russia and that Moscow would blackmail the U.S. government.
Yates, however, denied leaking details of Flynn's phone conversations with Russia's ambassador, based on the secret communications, to the press days after she held two meetings with President Trump's White House lawyer, Don McGahn Jan. 26 and 27.
Yates, who was fired by Trump for opposing an executive order on immigration, asserted the intercepted conversations caused her to conclude Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence, who claimed in a television interview that Flynn had not discussed sanctions on Russia in phone conversations with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during the presidential transition. She said the Russians were aware of Flynn's misstatements and "likely had proof," making him vulnerable to blackmail.
"To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians," she said.
Yates did not disclose details of the secret intercepts and was not asked by senators whether the Russians ever attempted to use their knowledge of Flynn's conversations with Kislyak to blackmail him.
"We had two concerns; compromise was certainly the number one concern and the Russians can use compromised material, information, in a variety of ways, sometimes overtly and sometimes subtly," Yates said. "And again, our concern was, is that you have a very sensitive position, like the national security adviser and you don't want that person to be in a position, where again, the Russians have leverage over him."
Another issue was the fact that Pence had relayed incorrect information to the American public. "We felt like the vice president was entitled to know that the information he had been given, and that he was relaying to the American public, wasn't true," she said.
Flynn was dismissed by Trump on Feb. 14, 19 days after Yates informed the White House of the intercepts contradicting Pence's statements.
Trump reacted to the Senate hearing on Twitter. "The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?" he tweeted.
Earlier, he declared that "Sally Yates made the fake media extremely unhappy today – she said nothing but old news!"
"Director Clapper reiterated what everybody, including the fake media already knows- there is ‘no evidence' of collusion w/ Russia and Trump," the president tweeted.
The two meetings held in the White House in January were aimed at prompting action against Flynn, Yates said. Asked if she recommended that Flynn be fired, Yates said it was not a call to be made by the Justice Department.
During the second White House meeting, Yates said she was asked why it mattered to the Justice Department if one White House official lies to another, and whether any crime had been committed.
White House officials also asked to see the source of the information about Flynn, including details of an FBI interview with him days earlier.
The hearing before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism fueled Democrats' further claims that Russia colluded with the Trump presidential campaign in a bid to defeat former secretary of state Hillary Clinton during last year's election.
Yates said she could not answer questions about the Russian collusion allegations because it would involve disclosing classified information. But she said her lack of comment should not be construed as confirming any collusion charges.
Former director of national intelligence James Clapper, appearing with Yates, said he saw no evidence of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.
However, Clapper revealed that he had asked intelligence agencies to unmask the identity of a Trump associate who appeared in secret intelligence involving the inadvertent foreign spying that included conversations or references to Americans. Intelligence rules require concealing the names of Americans who are not the target of foreign spying over privacy concerns.
Clapper declined during the open Senate hearing to identify the Trump associate who had been unmasked.
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is investigating whether the Obama White House improperly spied on members of the Trump presidential transition team by requesting the unmasking of Trump aides in foreign intelligence reports.
Under questioning from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), Clapper was asked if he had unmasked a Trump associate or member of Congress.
"Over my time as DNI, I think the answer was on rare occasion, both," he said, adding that the reason was to understand "the foreign target and the foreign target's behavior in relation to the U.S. person."
Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Lindsay Graham (R., S.C.) pressed Yates on the leak.
"The bottom line here is I want to know how it got to the Washington Post," Graham said. "Somebody had to have access to the information and they gave it to the Washington Post, is that a fair statement?"
"That's right," Yates said. "That's what it looks like to me."
Clapper also was asked whether he had uncovered information about a Trump business interest in Russia that had caused him concern. He replied he could not respond because the matter is under investigation.
Clapper also said the information was not related to Russian election meddling during the 2016 campaign and was not included in the intelligence report made public in January on the issue.
"Sen. Graham, I can't comment on that because that impacts an investigation," he said.
The former DNI also revealed that he was unaware of the FBI counterintelligence investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia that had been launched in July 2016. That probe was revealed by FBI Director James Comey in March.
Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.), a former comedian, criticized President Trump for not dismissing Flynn sooner.
"And maybe, just maybe, he didn't get rid of a guy who lied to the vice president, who got paid by the Russians, who went on Russia Today, because there are other people in his administration who met secretly with the Russians and didn't reveal it until later, until they were caught," Franken said.
"That may be why it took him 18 days, until it became public, to get rid of Mike Flynn, who is a danger to this republic," he added.
Republicans pressed the two former officials about how the secret intelligence was disclosed to the press. Both Yates and Clapper denied disclosing the information about the Flynn-Kislyak conversation or authorizing its release. The intercepts were reported by the Washington Post.
The Post report on Feb. 9 provides clues to the Obama administration efforts to use intelligence information against the Trump transition team.
The report quoted a "former senior U.S. official" who believed "something happened" in the 24-hour period between Obama announcing sanctions on Russia in December and Russia's lack of response—suggesting a backroom deal had been reached with Moscow.
"Officials began poring over intelligence reports, intercepted communications and diplomatic cables, and saw evidence that Flynn and Kislyak had communicated by text and telephone around the time of the announcement," the report said.
Several Republicans also grilled Yates regarding her controversial decision to oppose Trump's first executive order on immigration. The order banned immigrants from several nations affected by Islamic terrorism, despite the fact that the Justice Department's legal office had approved the order.
Yates testified that the legal office had not informed her of its decision and that she believed the order was unconstitutional because it banned Muslims and thus violated religious freedom law.