The former acting attorney general and the former director of national intelligence on Monday offered testimony before a Senate subcommittee that was very damaging to Russia and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, but not so harmful to President Donald Trump.
Democrats long had been waiting for testimony from Sally Yates, who ran the Department of Justice in the early days of the Trump administration. But while Yates testified about her concerns regarding Flynn’s discussions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, she offered no evidence to support the central conclusion that progressives hope to reach — that Trump or his associates colluded with Russian agents to tip the 2016 presidential election.
“What I don’t get is how the FBI can have a counter-intelligence investigation suggesting collusion and you, as director of national intelligence, not know about it and the FBI sign on to a report basically saying there is no collusion.”
James Clapper, director of national intelligence under former President Barack Obama, also had no new information implicating Trump.
Here are four takeaways from the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism.
1. No Trump Smoking Gun.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pointed to a March appearance on “Meet the Press” during which Clapper said he knew of no improper contacts between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. He asked if that was still accurate.
“It is,” he said.
An intelligence assessment concluding that Russia tried to sway the election did not include indications that Trump campaign officials might have coordinated with Russians on that matter. FBI Director James Comey recently revealed that the agency has been investigating that possibility since July.
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Clapper said he does not know why the FBI signed off on the intelligence assessment that did not include that information. He said he was not aware of the FBI’s criminal probe at the time.
“What I don’t get is how the FBI can have a counter-intelligence investigation suggesting collusion and you, as director of national intelligence, not know about it and the FBI sign on to a report basically saying there is no collusion,” Graham said.
Yates testified that she could not answer the question because it would require her to reveal classified information, later adding that her answer should not be interpreted to mean that there is such evidence.
That did not stop some Democrats from trying to make the leap anyway. Sen. Al Franken asked if the reason Trump did not immediately fire Flynn was because other people on his team were acting improperly. “We’ve got all these other people in the administration who coordinated, who are talking,” he said, musing about the president’s thought process.
Yates declined the invitation to wildly speculate.
“I don’t think I’m going to touch that, senator,” he said.
2. Testimony Bad For Flynn.
The testimony by Yates did no favors to Flynn, who lost his job in February after revelations that he had mislead Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his discussions with Kislyak.
Yates testified that she learned in January that Pence’s public statements about Flynn’s activities were untrue and alerted White House counsel Don McGahn about her concerns on Jan 26.
Without elaborating on how she learned the information, she told senators that she met with McGahn and told him that what Pence had relayed about Flynn, “we knew not to be the truth.” She declined to discuss the nature of that conduct, but press reports indicated that Flynn and the ambassador talked about U.S. sanctions against Russia.
Yates said she and a senior Justice Department official walked McGahn through the evidence.
“The first thing we did was to explain to Mr McGahn that the underlying conduct that Gen. Flynn had engaged in was problematic in and of itself,” she said.
Yates testified that she was concerned the Russians could use the discrepancy to blackmail Flynn.
“The Russians also knew what Gen. Flynn had done,” she said. “And the Russians also knew that Gen. Flynn had misled the vice president and others.”
Yates and McGahn met again the next day to discuss the matter further. She said McGahn asked about the applicability of criminal law.
Democrats on the subcommittee tried to make hay over the fact that Trump did not fire Flynn until 18 days after Yates first raised the issue with McGahn. But Yates acknowledged that she demurred when McGahn asked her if Flynn should be fired. That was not a matter for her to decide, she said.
3. Elephant in the Room: Unmasking.
Republican senators pressed the witnesses on an issue that their Democratic colleagues showed absolutely no interest in — possible abuse of classified information.
Clapper and Yates both said they had reviewed classified documents related to the Trump transition but could not talk about it. Both said they never had been anonymous sources for journalists writing about the Trump campaign and had not authorized any other officials to be anonymous officials.
Graham asked how information about Flynn made it into The Washington Post.
“That’s a great question,” Clapper said. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Added Yates: “Nor do I know the answer to that.”
Of course, media reports about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak necessarily involved leaks of classified information. There is no other way reporters could have known about it, short of being in the room.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he regretted that former National Security Adviser Susan Rice had bowed out of testifying. He said she could shed some light on allegations that Obama administration officials had improperly requested the names of Trump associates whose identities had been hidden in intelligence reports.
“It seems to me that there are a lot of questions that she needs to answer,” he said.
Graham said it is an important issue.
“I’d like to know more, and I’d like to be sure that unmasking can never be used as a political weapon in our democracy,” he said.
4. Democrats Had Blasé Response to FBI Warnings.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) noted that the FBI notified the Democratic National Committee of intrusions into its computer system and that the party turned down an offer for help. Instead, Grassley noted, the party hired a private firm in spring 2016.
He said 27,000 of the 27,500 DNC emails that were released to the public were sent after the FBI notified it of the breach.
“Would you agree that one of the lessons of this episode is that people should cooperate with the FBI when notified of foreign acts instead of stonewalling?” he asked.
Answered Clapper: “Yes, sir, I generally think that’s a very good idea.”
Grassley also challenged the conventional wisdom that Russia targeted only Democrats during the 2016 campaign season. He noted that the Russian hacker known as Guccifer 2.0 on June 15 released to Gawker and the Smoking Gun website 200 pages of opposition research on Trump just two days after The Wall Street Journal reported on a movement to persuade Trump’s delegates to the Republican National Convention to revolt against him.
Clapper said he does not know why that was not included in the intelligence assessment of Russian interference in the election.
“I don’t know personally whether they considered that or not,” he said.