There’s More to the Story of Why Sally Yates Was Fired

The truth is, what we learned from Sally Yates’ testimony yesterday at the Senate hearing merely provided the details of what we already knew: that as Acting Attorney General, she had gone to the Trump administration to tell them that Michael Flynn was at risk of being blackmailed over the lies he was telling about his communication with the Russian ambassador.

Yates was able to elaborate on some of the specifics. She had two meetings with White House counsel Don McGahn on January 26th and 27th. In the first meeting she laid out what the FBI knew and why they were concerned.

“Compromise was certainly the number one concern. And the Russians use compromise material information in a variety of ways, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly. And again our concern was that you have a very sensitive position like the national security adviser and you don’t want that person to be in a position where the Russians have leverage over them.”

It was McGahn who asked for the second meeting the next day.

McGahn called her back to the White House on Jan. 27 when he asked questions including what was the concern about one White House official lying to another, whether Flynn might be criminally prosecuted, whether taking action would compromise the investigation and whether the administration could see the underlying data. On Jan. 30, Yates told McGahn the intelligence could in fact be reviewed.

Hearing this story told so thoughtfully and thoroughly was a reminder of how the president was either incredibly reckless about the man he chose to be his national security advisor or complicit in Flynn’s activities.

With all of the revelations we’ve witnessed over the last couple of months, the White House seems to be doing everything they can to distance themselves from Michael Flynn. The latest has been to blame former President Obama for him. But one thing that didn’t come up in the hearing today is what Trump said about Flynn after he resigned. Four days later, the president held a news conference.

President Donald Trump defended his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, during a fiery and wide-ranging news conference Thursday afternoon, saying the retired general “did nothing wrong” and blasting the media for their reporting on the scandal.

Flynn “was doing his job. He was calling countries,” Trump said of Flynn’s conversation with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergei Kislyak. “I didn’t direct him, but I would have directed him if he didn’t do it,” Trump said.

Over the last 2 1/2 months the president has gone from “he didn’t do anything wrong,” to “it’s all Obama’s fault.” It is a steady stream of lies in which Trump will do/say anything to avoid personal responsibility.

Getting back to Yates’ testimony, the actual news she made during the hearing had as much to do with why she was fired as it was about Michael Flynn. As is stated in the quote above, the second meeting between Yates and McGahn ended with her making a commitment to arrange for him to view the evidence against Flynn. When asked whether or not the White House followed through on that, Yates said she didn’t know because that was the day she was fired.

In order to avoid the whole Flynn story, several Republicans—including Ted Cruz—focused much of their time on grilling Yates about her refusal to defend the travel ban, the reason that was given for her firing. If you were not able to watch the entire hearing yourself, this is the one clip you’ll not want to miss.

Here is how that exchange ended:

CRUZ: Very brief question. In the over 200 years of the Department of Justice’s history, are you aware of any instance in which the Department of Justice has formally approved the legality of a policy and three days later the attorney general directed the department not to follow that policy and to defy that policy?

YATES: I’m not. But I’m also not aware of a situation where the Office of Legal Counsel was advised not to tell the attorney general about it until after it was over.

In other words, someone in the administration “advised” the OLC to not tell the Acting Attorney General about the executive order. Later in her testimony Yates said that she heard about it from the media reports.

What is even more astounding is that the ban was signed on Friday, January 27th – the very same day that Yates had her second meeting with McGahn. It was also the day that McGahn’s OLC issued a statement on their view of the legality of the travel ban.

On Monday, January 30th, Yates advised McGahn that arrangements had been made for him to view the documents related to Flynn and issued a statement instructing Justice Department lawyers to not defend the travel ban. By that evening she was fired.

All of that raises the question of whether her firing was solely related to her refusal to defend the travel ban or was also retaliation for blowing the whistle on Flynn. As you can see, the two events happened simultaneously in the week after Trump was inaugurated.

That question was not asked, nor are we likely to ever know the answer. But regardless of whether she was fired for one or both of those actions, Yates gave all of us a couple of reasons to value her public service in these trying times.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.