By Patricia Zengerle and Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former U.S. President Barack Obama warned then-President-elect Donald Trump not to give the post of national security adviser in his administration to Michael Flynn who was eventually fired in a controversy about ties to Russia, a former Obama aide said.
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Obama gave the warning in a one-hour Oval Office meeting with Trump two days after the Republican's surprise Nov. 8 election win. The warning, first reported by NBC News, came up during a discussion of White House personnel.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer, responding to the reports, told a news briefing: "It's true that the president, President Obama, made it known that he wasn't exactly a fan of General Flynn‘s, which frankly shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, given that General Flynn had worked for President Obama, was an outspoken critic of President Obama's shortcomings, specifically as it related to his lack of strategy confronting ISIS and other threats."
An Obama spokesman initially declined to comment.
Flynn has emerged as a central figure in probes into allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and possible collusion between Trump's campaign and Moscow. Russia has repeatedly denied any such meddling.
He had been pushed out by Obama in 2014 from his job as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, during the Democratic president's term in office. Trump dismissed Flynn after less than a month as his national security adviser.
A former U.S. deputy attorney general, Sally Yates, was appearing at a hearing of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Monday. She was expected to tell the panel that she had warned the White House counsel after Trump took office that Flynn had not told the truth about conversations he had held with Russia's ambassador to Washington.
James Clapper, Obama's former Director of National Intelligence, was testifying to the panel before Yates.
Senator Lindsey Graham, the subcommittee's Republican chairman, said in opening the hearing on Monday that the issue of interference in the election should not be partisan.
"When a foreign party interferes in our election, it doesn't matter who they targeted. We're all in the same boat," Graham told the panel.
Trump fired Yates in late January after she defied the White House and refused to defend travel restrictions targeting seven Muslim-majority countries, a policy that Trump has said would help protect Americans from ISIS, the Islamic State group that has claimed responsibility for attacks in several countries.
Trump fired Flynn, a retired general, in February for failing to disclose talks with Ambassador Sergei Kislyak about U.S. sanctions on Moscow and then misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.
Congressional committees began investigating after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered hacking of Democratic political groups to try to sway the election toward Trump. The agencies said Russia was behind "fake news" reports that were disseminated on social media.
Trump has also dismissed the allegations, suggesting instead that Obama might have wiretapped Trump Tower in New York or that China may have been behind the cyber attacks. Trump has provided no evidence and neither scenario has been supported by intelligence agencies.
Hours before Monday's Senate hearing, Trump insinuated that Yates, an Obama administration appointment, had leaked information on Flynn to the media.
"Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Council," Trump wrote on Twitter, apparently misspelling the word counsel.
In another Twitter post, Trump noted that Flynn had been granted top security clearance while working in the Obama administration.
Flynn was fired from the DIA in 2014 for what officials familiar with the issue said was a disruptive management style that included instructing analysts to find intelligence substantiating improbable theories that some subordinates came to call "Flynn facts." He also advocated an overhaul of the DIA that ignited resistance from veteran intelligence officials, the officials said.
The Senate Judiciary subcommittee probe is one of three main congressional investigations of Russia and the 2016 U.S. election. The FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies are conducting separate probes.