Senators pressed for more answers about interference by Russia in the 2016 U.S. elections, as a former top Justice Department official described how she warned the Trump White House of fears that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail, while the former U.S. intelligence chief continued to say Moscow was trying to undermine both Democrats and Republicans.
Here’s some of what we learned:
1. New details about the Yates warning on Flynn. For the first time in public, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates described how she had warned the White House about ex-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Giving some details about two meetings in January, Yates said the message to White House Counsel Doug McGahn was – based on public stories in the press, and investigative intelligence – that Flynn had seemingly been lying to Vice President Pence and others about contacts during the transition with the Russian Ambassador to the United States. Yates said the Justice Department was worried that Flynn might be blackmailed by the Russians.
2. No Russia bombshells delivered by Yates. While Democrats had been talking up the possibility of some major new revelations by Yates, that didn’t happen before Senators – but the hearing brought forth a number of interesting items, like the reaction of the White House to the warning by Yates about Flynn. Yates said – and clearly this is just her opinion – that the White House Counsel wondered why the Justice Department was concerned over what White House officials were saying to each other, and whether one might be lying to the Vice President. It’s possible that “Why does it matter” will become the Democratic version of what “What difference does it make?” meant to Republicans over Hillary Clinton.
3. Ex-DNI continues to point the finger at Russia. While he is no longer the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper once more made no bones about what went on in the 2016 elections, as he again bluntly accused Moscow of hacking emails from both parties, making cyber forays into state voter rolls, and doing what they could to stir confusion and dissent in the American political arena. “The Russian used cyber operations against both political parties,” as Clapper tied Moscow directly to Wikileaks, saying the Russians withheld materials that were taken from Republican computers. “I hope the American people recognize the severity of this threat and that we collectively counter it before it erodes the fabric of our democracy.”
4. Clapper says he did not know of FBI investigation. One of the more interesting moments of the hearing was when the former DNI acknowledged that he had been kept in the dark by the FBI on their counter-intelligence investigation into election meddling by the Russians, and whether or not it involved associates of the Trump Campaign. Clapper said he only learned of the probe in mid-March, when FBI Director James Comey revealed the investigation in a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee. “I was not aware of the counterintelligence investigation,” Clapper said, “and that comports with my public statements.” And that means, when Clapper said in January that he knew of no collusion between the Trump Campaign and Russia – that he didn’t even know there was an FBI investigation going on into exactly that.
5. U.S. allies sent intelligence about Trump associates and Russia. While Clapper admitted that he knew nothing about the FBI probe, the former DNI did confirm something that has been bubbling for weeks, that intelligence agencies of allies in Europe had sent the United States information they had obtained about possible contacts between Trump associates and Russia. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) asked Clapper if it was accurate that “multiple European” countries had sent such information to the U.S. Intelligence Community. “Yes it is,” Clapper acknowledged. “And it’s also quite sensitive,” Clapper said, without providing anymore context or background.
6. Were Trump business interests in Russia being watched? Another comment by ex-DNI Clapper sparked interest as well in what U.S. Intelligence had found during surveillance, about the business side of Mr. Trump. “Did you ever find a situation where a Trump business interest in Russia gave you a concern?” asked Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). At first, Clapper said no. “At all? Anytime,” Graham pressed. Clapper then modified his answer in a way that made it sound like there were intelligence resources dedicated to that topic. “I can’t comment on that because that impacts an investigation.”
7. Yates quizzed repeatedly on opposition to Trump travel order. While the hearing was about Russian interference in the 2016 elections, several GOP Senators spent most of their time asking Sally Yates why she had stood in the way of President Trump’s first travel and refugee order – a move which lead to her firing in late January. Yates said she determined the order was unconstitutional – Republicans did not accept that explanation, though the plan never made it through the federal courts, as Mr. Trump ended up having the plan revised (that is also now before the courts). “I personally wrestled over this decision,” Yates said, here in this exchange with Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA).
8. The two parties again had totally different game plans. Once again, a high profile hearing on Russian interference in the U.S. elections was played out in entirely different ways by the two parties. Outside of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), most Republicans again stayed away from direct questions on what Russia did during 2016, focusing instead on the question of leaks and the “unmasking” of names possibly linked to the Trump Campaign. As mentioned above, GOP Senators also quizzed Yates on the original Trump travel and refugee order, and at one point, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) tried to move the hearing topic over to Hillary Clinton’s email server and emails sent by her top State Department aide Huma Abedin. Democrats meanwhile stayed on message, and zeroed in on the Russian meddling, repeatedly calling for a special counsel investigation.
9. As for President Trump, he sees no reason for any probe. Just over an hour after the Senate hearing ended, President Trump vented his frustration with the investigation, labeling the probe into any ties between his campaign and Russia, a “total hoax,” as he demanded to know, “when will this taxpayer funded charade end?” For now, the answer to that question is most likely – not any time soon, as not only is Congress reviewing the matter, but the FBI continues its own investigation as well. Earlier in the day, Mr. Trump had used Twitter to make the implication that Sally Yates had leaked material about Michael Flynn, something she denied at the Senate hearing. “Sally Yates made the fake media extremely unhappy today,” Trump tweeted, “she said nothing but old news!”
It’s safe to say that some on Capitol Hill would not agree with the President’s assessment.