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Yates’ Senate testimony on ‘compromised’ Flynn returns Russia probe to the spotlight

May 8, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
Two high-profile witnesses -- former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates -- addressed a Senate hearing Monday on the investigation into the Trump administration's relationship with Russia, and the warnings the White House received about Gen. Michael Flynn. Judy Woodruff speaks with Lisa Desjardins and Julie Pace of Associated Press.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In the U.S. Senate, the attention today was on the investigation into the Trump administration’s relationship with Russia, as senators heard from a man who has been in the spotlight for years and a woman few had heard of before last fall.

Lisa Desjardins reports.

LISA DESJARDINS: At the Capitol, a swarm of attention at a Russia hearing with two high-profile witnesses. One was former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

But attention focused on the other, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who first warned the White House that then National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had lied about his talks with Russian officials.

SALLY YATES, Former Acting U.S. Attorney General: The concern first about the underlying conduct itself, that he had lied to the vice president and others, 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.

LISA DESJARDINS: Yates said she made no recommendations, just relayed information.

SALLY YATES: That created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians. Finally, we told them that we were giving them all of this information so that they could take action, the action that they deemed appropriate.

LISA DESJARDINS: Eighteen days after that private warning, the White House forced out Flynn. Now, that was just four days after the news had become public.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said this at the time:

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: The acting attorney general informed the White House counsel that they wanted to give — quote — a “heads-up” to us on some comments that may have seemed in conflict with what he had said to the vice president in particular.

LISA DESJARDINS: Today, Democrats pressed the witnesses on whether the White House did enough fast enough.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-Ill., Minority Whip: If you had the warning from the White House — or, pardon me — from the Department of Justice to the White House about General Flynn possibly being compromised here, and then these important national security decisions that followed, would you have concern about that?

JAMES CLAPPER, Former National Intelligence Director: Well, I would, hypothetically, yes. I mean, again, I was gone from the government as well when this happened.

LISA DESJARDINS: President Trump added his thoughts this morning electronically, tweeting: “Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to the White House counsel.”

Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley asked.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY, R-Iowa: Have either of you ever been an anonymous source in a news report about matters relating to Mr. Trump, his associates or Russians’ attempt to meddle in the election?

JAMES CLAPPER: No.

SALLY YATES: Absolutely not.

LISA DESJARDINS: All this comes as news reports surfaced today President Obama warned Mr. Trump against hiring Flynn just days after the election. For his part, Spicer said today those comments were expected.

SEAN SPICER: It’s true that the president made it — 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.

LISA DESJARDINS: This topic and Sally Yates will remain in the spotlight. A House committee is due to hear from her. No date scheduled for that yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Lisa is here with me now to dig deeper into what we learned today.

We’re also joined by Julie Pace, who is the White House correspondent for the Associated Press.

Welcome, of course, to both of you.

Lisa, to your first just quickly off of your report. A lot of accusations flying back and forth between the Trump White House and the former Obama team.

We know that one of the things this — President Trump has said is that President Obama’s White House had given a security clearance originally to General Flynn, who they fired as the head of defense intelligence a few years ago. Where does the truth in all that lie?

LISA DESJARDINS: Right.

So, this security clearance is something that retired generals have access to. They can ask for it by the fact that they are a retired general. Flynn did ask for that in 2016. He was given it by the Defense Department.

There was reporting today that now the Defense Department is looking into whether he lied to them during that clearance security renewal. Take that aside, though. When you talk to national security experts, some from the George W. Bush team and Democrats, they all told me today that a security clearance doesn’t take the onus off an incoming administration to do their own vetting.

And a very important difference about the national security adviser, Judy, it’s not a Senate-approved position, so it doesn’t go through all the ethics checks necessarily, unless the president forces it to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, now, one other thing that you have been looking into today is this question of President Obama, after President Trump was elected, after he was elected last November, warning him. What did you find out about that?

LISA DESJARDINS: Right.

Others have reported this as well, but we have a source telling us from the Obama White House that, in fact, President Obama, that it wasn’t just about Michael Flynn being a critic of his, but, from their perspective, that they Michael Flynn as someone who was erratic, and a bad manager and shouldn’t continue in government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, on that note, let’s pick up with Julie Pace.

Julie, you did some reporting going into the weekend about the Trump transition team coming to the Obama team during that — during the transition last November with questions, and what was the significance of all that?

JULIE PACE, Associated Press: Right. I think that what this shows is just the depths of the concerns about Mike Flynn.

You had people who were working for the Trump transition team after the election who were concerned that Mike Flynn, who was going to be having a conversation with the Russian ambassador — that wasn’t unusual — as national security adviser, you would be talking to a foreign counterpart — but that Mike Flynn did not really understand the potential motivations of Sergey Kislyak, the Russian envoy, that he might not understand rumored ties that Kislyak had to Russian intelligence.

So, what the transition officials were seeking is a classified CIA biography on the Russian ambassador that would give U.S. intelligence assessments about the envoy.

And for the Obama administration, this raised red flags, because it showed that within Trump’s own team, there were concerns about Flynn’s ability to handle what’s an incredibly sensitive and high-pressure job that involves an enormous amount of contact with foreign officials, both friendly officials and adversaries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Julie, you — to move beyond that, you have learned a lot more about what the Obama team was thinking during the transition, how they grew increasingly concerned about what they were learning.

JULIE PACE: Right.

There was a growing concern within the Obama administration on a number of fronts. You had Mike Flynn, who was going in for his meetings with his counterparts in the Obama administration, and they would talk about Russia, and he would essentially, I’m told, dismiss Russia as a threat to the United States.

That raised some concern. You had worries about handling of sensitive administration, documents that the Obama administration was turning over to the Trump team. There was some concern that those documents were being copied and removed from secure rooms.

So, you saw the Obama team limiting the amount of information they were letting outside the White House. And it really comes all at a time when U.S. also intelligence is starting to gather more information that some officials believe shows more ties between the Trump campaign and Trump associates and Russia’s meddling in the elections.

So, taken together from the perspective of Obama officials, this really created a troubling picture of the Trump team’s ties to Russia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, Julie, in other words, the ending of the Obama administration in a pretty fraught frame of mind over all this?

JULIE PACE: Absolutely.

And you have seen that almost continue, particularly when it comes to Mike Flynn. The revelations today, I don’t think are coincidental that the Obama team felt the need to get out there that the outgoing president was delivering a personal warning to his successor about his likely choice for national security adviser.

When you think about that, that’s quite extraordinary. You would expect presidents to be giving their successors advice perhaps on policy. But to give a specific warning about a potential personnel pick really is extraordinary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Remarkable reporting.

Julie Pace of the AP and our own Lisa Desjardins, we thank you both.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we will be discussing Russia’s meddling with a former Justice Department official right after our news summary.

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