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Sally Yates just handed Democrats new ammo for going after Trump

Her testimony showed why the Michael Flynn scandal isn’t going away.

Senate Holds Hearing On Russian Interference In U.S. Election (Eric Thayer/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

WASHINGTON — When former acting Attorney General Sally Yates was sworn in before the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism and Crime on Monday afternoon, nearly everyone sitting near me in the audience sat up to snap a picture. It felt like an iconic moment, one that spoke to the importance of the events about to take place.

This turned out to be right. Yates’s subsequent testimony confirmed, under penalty of perjury, that she had warned the Trump White House that then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was lying about his contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December. Yates told the White House this on January 26 and again on January 27. She worried that one of the country’s top officials was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

“We wanted to tell the White House as quickly as possible,” she said. “To state the obvious: You don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.”

Yet Flynn wasn’t fired until February 13 — after the Washington Post publicly reported that his calls to Kislyak had covered sanctions, contrary to what he had said. The timeline here raises a disturbing question: Would the Trump team have fired Flynn if the information Yates had given them had never gone public? Or would they have simply allowed a known liar, one potentially at risk of Russian blackmail, to stay in such a sensitive position?

This is something we had already heard in press accounts. But with the facts confirmed under oath, this sets the stage for more investigations as to what the Trump administration did between Yates’s warning and Flynn’s firing. And judging by the behavior of the Democrats on the committee, it seems such investigations are likely to start coming.

Michael Flynn is gone. But the scandal he created for the Trump administration may just be beginning.

What Yates told us, explained

In order to understand the significance of Yates’s testimony, a brief timeline is necessary.

On December 29, the Obama administration announced a series of new sanctions on Russia as punishment for its interference in the US presidential election. That same day, Flynn called Ambassador Kislyak multiple times.

When news of the calls first went public, on January 12, the Trump administration admitted that the two men had spoken but denied that they spoke about the new sanctions. Vice President Mike Pence told reporters that he had spoken to Flynn, and that Flynn had told him the calls were friendly exchanges that grew out of Christmas greetings — a questionable story given that Russian Orthodox Christmas was actually on January 9, 2017.

This set off alarm bells at the Justice Department. They had proof — almost certainly from routine surveillance of Kislyak’s calls, though Yates wouldn’t confirm this — that Flynn and Kislyak had spoken about sanctions back in December.

The issue wasn’t just that Flynn was lying to Pence, though that was bad enough. The bigger problem, according to Yates, was that Flynn had created a situation where his job was on the line if the truth about his calls to Kislyak ever went public. The Russians “knew this,” Yates said, “and likely had proof” of what Flynn and Kislyak really talked about. Hence Russia now had the ability to potentially blackmail the US national security adviser.

On January 24, after about two weeks of investigation into the issue, FBI agents interviewed Flynn about the call. Two days later, Yates called White House counsel Don McGahn and asked to meet with him on a very sensitive subject.

In the first meeting, Yates conveyed the basic concerns about Flynn to McGahn. She warned him about the risk of blackmail from Russia, and even said that Flynn might be prosecuted (she wouldn’t say why in her Senate testimony, but it seems like he may have lied to the FBI during the January 24 interview). Yates urged the White House “to act” in order to limit the risk Flynn created.

In their second meeting, on January 27, McGahn raised four different points with Yates (in her recollection):

  1. He asked why the DOJ was concerned about Flynn lying to Pence.
  2. He asked how likely it was that Flynn might be prosecuted.
  3. He expressed “concern that taking action might interfere with an investigation” into Flynn’s conduct.
  4. He asked to see the “underlying evidence” that Flynn had, in fact, lied.

According to Yates, “Mr. McGahn personally demonstrated that he was taking this seriously.” Yet she admitted that since she was dismissed three days later for refusing to defend the Trump administration’s new immigration executive order in court, she had no way of knowing whether the White House had taken any kind of action to limit Flynn’s influence. In short, McGahn could be expressing concern without taking any underlying action.

“You don’t know if they took any steps to restrict his access to classified information?” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) asked.

“No,” Yates replied. “If nothing was done, then certainly that would be concerning.”

What did the White House do?

Trump Returns to the White House (Ron Sachs/Pool/Getty Images)

The famous question from the Watergate scandal was: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” In the case of the Flynn scandal, we know what the White House knew. The question is what did they do about it, and when did they do it?

As a number of Democrats on the committee pointed out, there is no public evidence that Flynn’s access to the president or classified information was restricted in any way. In fact, there’s evidence to the contrary: After Yates’s warning to McGahn, Flynn sat in on a long phone call between President Trump and Vladimir Putin, and participated in a sensitive meeting with Japanese President Shinzo Abe on North Korea’s nuclear program.

In fact, there’s no evidence that Yates’s warning was even the cause of Flynn’s firing. Flynn was only dismissed after the news of his lie was reported by the Washington Post, which made keeping him on politically untenable. And even after firing him, the president seemed unwilling to admit that Flynn did anything wrong.

"Gen. Flynn is a wonderful man. I think he has been treated very, very unfairly by the media, as I call it, the fake media in many cases," Trump said in a February 15 press conference. "And I think it is really a sad thing that he was treated so badly."

This all suggests that the White House did not take a very serious issue — the potential compromise of the national security adviser by the Russians — seriously at all. It suggests, as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) outright said, that “Michael Flynn might still be sitting in the White House” if it weren’t for the Washington Post.

This means the Flynn scandal is far from over. Now attention will turn to whether the White House did anything — like restricting Flynn’s security clearance or opening an internal investigation — or whether they simply ignored the risk that Flynn posed to US national security. And if they did nothing, the question becomes why? Did the Trump White House just not care if Russia had a way of getting access to some of the US’s most sensitive classified information? And if so, why?

Democrats on the committee seemed fascinated by this question (Republicans, not so much). It’s hard to imagine it going away anytime soon.

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