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Sally Yates, Defending DOJ, Says Michael Flynn Talks Neutered U.S. Russia Policy

Updated at 1:31 p.m. ET

Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates defended a sensitive Justice Department investigation into onetime Trump aide Michael Flynn on Wednesday, telling lawmakers Flynn was essentially "neutering" American sanctions and undercutting the Obama administration by "making nice" with a foreign adversary after Russia's unprecedented attack on the 2016 election.

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Yates said Flynn's lies to the FBI were "absolutely material to a legitimate investigation" — contradicting the rationale the Justice Department has now offered in seeking to dismiss the case.

Yates, who was a prosecutor for nearly 30 years, said the effort to drop a prosecution against a defendant who twice pleaded guilty was "highly irregular."

"If Gen. Flynn didn't think he was doing anything problematic, then he wouldn't have needed to do anything to cover it," Yates said of Flynn's false statements about his conversations with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late 2016.

Flynn told Vice President Pence and then FBI investigators he hadn't asked Kislyak to press his government not to escalate its retaliation against punitive steps the outgoing administration of President Barack Obama was taking. Actually, documents later proved, Flynn had.

Republicans fault Obama era

Wednesday's hearing is the second in a series chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is digging into actions by the Obama administration in its waning months.

Graham pointed to findings by the independent Justice Department watchdog, who identified 17 "major" errors in wiretap applications against another former Trump campaign adviser who had contact with the Russians.

Yates said she would not have signed applications that she knew contained errors.

Graham zeroed in on a White House meeting on Jan. 5, 2017, when Obama pulled aside Yates, FBI Director James Comey, Vice President Joe Biden and national security adviser Susan Rice.

The conversation focused on whether it was appropriate to continue to share national security information with Flynn given his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

Notes from that meeting, released earlier this year, suggested that Biden or another attendee brought up the idea of prosecuting Flynn under an obscure 1799 law, the Logan Act, that bars Americans from negotiating with foreign governments about policy differences without permission from the U.S. government.

Republicans said that was a "sham reason."

"Who brought up the Logan Act in the Jan. 5 meeting?" Graham asked. "Whose great idea was this?"

Yates said she did not recall Biden, who is running for president, "saying much of anything" in the meeting. She said Comey might have mentioned it at some point that day. But she insisted that no one in the Obama White House had sought to put their fingers on the scales against Flynn.

"During the meeting, the president, the vice president and the national security adviser did not in any way attempt to direct or influence any kind of investigation," Yates said. "Something like that would have set off alarms for me, and it would have stuck out, both at the time and in my memory. No such thing happened."

Republican lawmakers also repeatedly pressed Yates about faulty information in surveillance applications for Carter Page, who served as an adviser to the Trump campaign. Government officials now say some source material amounted to gossip and "bar talk" that has since been disavowed.

"We have a deliberate and systematic misleading of a federal court here," said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.

Committee chairman Graham said he was satisfied that both Yates and her successor, Rod Rosenstein, were in the dark about errors in the wiretap applications. But he said additional hearings would be devoted to who else knew.

Republicans made more headway by asking Yates about actions by Comey in 2016 and early 2017. The FBI reports to the leaders of the Justice Department, but Comey hadn't told the attorney general or the deputy about intercepts between Flynn and Kislyak at the time of the White House meeting in early January.

Yates acknowledged to senators she was "frankly, irritated" that Comey appeared to be going rogue.

"I don't think the FBI was providing us with as much information as they should have," Yates added about the surveillance applications of Page. She said there should be more thorough briefings by the FBI to Justice Department leadership — a recommendation offered by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

President Trump complained about Yates on Twitter in a post that said she has "zero credibility."

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., asked Yates about her personal feelings toward the president, in an effort to portray the 2016 investigations as motivated by politics or personal animus.

Yates replied that she doesn't "despise" anyone, but as for Trump, "I don't respect the manner in which he has carried out the presidency."

Democrats on the panel worried about ongoing efforts by Russia and other countries to tamper with the 2020 election, calling Republicans' backward-looking Senate probe a distraction.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said lawmakers had received "absolutely chilling" classified briefings about current threats, ones he says they're forbidden to discuss, with just three months to go until election day.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.