WASHINGTON -- Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates told senators Monday that she warned the White House's top lawyer in January that then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn may have been "compromised" by the Russians and that the administration needed to "take action they thought was appropriate."
In her first public remarks since being fired by President Donald Trump on Jan. 30, Yates also stood behind her decision not to defend the White House's executive order barring many Middle Eastern refugees from entering the United States.
In three hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, the Atlanta native said she met twice with White House counsel Donald McGahn to discuss the possibility of Flynn being vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians. Some news outlets have reported that the vulnerability came from Flynn discussing sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, but Yates would not confirm that.
“Logic would tell you that you don’t want the Russians have leverage over the national security adviser,” Yates said. “We knew that was not a good situation, which is why we wanted the White House to know about it.”
Yates said McGahn took her concerns "seriously" but that he expressed concern that taking action could interfere with the FBI's investigation into Russia's interference in the election. She said she did not know how McGahn and others proceeded after she relayed the information since she was fired soon thereafter. (Flynn ultimately wasn't fired until after news of Yates' conversations with the White House was reported by the press.)
Yates said she also raised concerns about Vice President Mike Pence unknowingly being misled by Flynn, who had served as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama.
At several points during her Senate testimony, Yates said she could not talk about details of the government's investigation into Russia or Flynn's conduct since she was not allowed to discuss information that was classified or under investigation. That included who in the intelligence community ordered that Flynn's name be revealed in government reports that featured interceptions from foreign diplomats' communications.
Republican senators pressed Yates and James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence under Obama, about how classified information was leaked to the media in the first place, a point President Donald Trump made on Twitter earlier Monday:
Both Yates and Clapper said they were not responsible for the leaks, nor did they authorize anyone to share the classified information with the press.
When questioned about the executive order on refugees, Yates said she believed she was upholding the Constitution by refusing to defend the action, even though the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel determined it was legal.
“I looked at this, determined it was unlawful and inconsistent with” the Constitution's establishment, equal protection and due process clauses, Yates said of her interpretation of the order. She added that the Office of Legal Counsel looks purely "at the face of the document" but that it didn't take into account other factors, such as religious freedom and discrimination against particular groups.
"In this particular instance ... it was appropriate for us to look at the intent behind the president's action," she said. By defending the executive order, she would have had to argue that it wasn't about religion, which wasn't true, Yates argued.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, suggested that Yates' action not to defend the executive action was partisan and that it broke with longstanding precedent.
"There's no doubt the arguments you've laid out are arguments that we could expect from partisan litigants who disagreed with the policies and the president" in court, he said.