The true story of Michael Flynn’s departure from the Trump White House is shaping up to be very different from the story the White House pushed forward at the time of his resignation as national security adviser.
On Monday afternoon, after weeks of delay, congress heard public testimony from Sally Yates, a former career prosecutor at the Department of Justice who served as acting attorney general during the first days of Trump’s presidency. Yates testified that she warned Donald F. McGahn II, Trump’s White House counsel, that Flynn’s contacts with the Russian government differed from claims that Vice President Mike Pence and others had made publicly.
In January, Pence went on a Sunday talk show and said that Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, had “nothing whatsoever” to do with sanctions imposed by the outgoing Obama administration on the Russian government. Now it appears that Flynn and Kislyak did talk about sanctions.
“The Vice President was unknowingly making false statements to the public,” is how Yates put it.
In one of two meetings with McGahn, she told the White House that Flynn’s apparent deception made him vulnerable to blackmail. “We were giving them [the White House] this information so that they could take action,” Yates said in her testimony. The question of whether to fire Flynn was not her call to make, she added.
For the next 18 days after Yates talked with McGahn, Trump appears to have taken no action on Flynn, who continued to serve in his post as national security adviser. Only when word of Yates’s warning reached the Washington Post, and the paper was getting set to publish, did Flynn finally resign. By comparing Yates’s testimony about Flynn’s departure to past statements made by the Trump administration, it appears that the resignation set off a fresh round of deception in the White House.
On February 14, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, characterized Yates’s warning as “a heads-up.”
“The White House counsel informed the president immediately,” Spicer said. “The president asked him to conduct a review of whether there was a legal situation there. That was immediately determined that there wasn’t.”
Spicer’s words appear to contradict what Trump himself told reporters four days earlier when asked about reports that Flynn had misled the administration about contacts with Kislyak. “I don’t know about that,” Trump said. “I haven’t seen it.”
Spicer attempted to frame Yates’s warning as casual advice, but in fact, as Yates explained on Monday, her warning was clear and grave — Flynn had deceived the vice president, and, as a result, could be blackmailed by the Russians, who were likely aware of his deception. Yates’s concerns could not, she told McGahn, be discussed by phone. She met McGahn that same day in his secure White House office, accompanied, she said, by another senior career official from the Department of Justice.
Flynn had recently been interviewed by the F.B.I. about his Russian contacts. “Mr. McGahn asked me how he did and I declined to give him an answer to that,” Yates testified. She made clear that it wasn’t just Flynn’s apparent deceptiveness that had drawn her attention. “The underlying conduct that General Flynn engaged in was problematic in and of itself,” she told the hearing on Monday. When senators asked what that conduct was, Yates declined to answer, saying that it was classified.