White House denies report it tried to block former acting attorney general from testifying about Russia

The White House denied Tuesday a Washington Post report that said it tried to prevent former acting Attorney General Sally Yates from testifying before Congress as part of the investigation into Trump campaign officials’ ties with Russian operatives.

“The Washington Post story is entirely false. The White House has taken no action to prevent Sally Yates from testifying and the Department of Justice specifically told her that it would not stop her and to suggest otherwise is completely irresponsible,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement.

Yates and several intelligence officials, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan, had been asked to testify before the House Intelligence Committee this week before the committee’s chairman, Devin Nunes, canceled the hearing.

According to a March 23 letter Yates’ lawyer, David O’Neill, sent to the Department of Justice, the DOJ contacted Yates to tell her it “believes there are further constraints on the testimony” she “may provide” at the hearing.

The DOJ also wrote, according to the letter, that a good chunk of Yates’ potential testimony may be protected under the presidential communication privilege.

O’Neill’s letter continued: “Generally, we understand that the department takes the position that all information Ms. Yates received or actions she took in her capacity as Deputy Attorney General and acting Attorney General are client confidences that she may not disclose absent written consent of the department.”

O’Neill suggested an unusual nature to the DOJ’s claim, calling it “overbroad, incorrect, and inconsistent with the department’s historical approach to the congressional testimony of current and former officials.”

The letter also disputed the DOJ’s assessment and said that Yates should not be barred from providing her testimony about non-classified material regarding the investigation — in which Yates played an instrumental role — of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia before it emerged that he had spoken to the Russian ambassador about US sanctions in December.

She was fired by Trump after she ordered the DOJ not to defend Trump’s first executive order targeting immigration into the United States by those coming from several Muslim-majority countries.

Scott Schools, a Justice Department official, replied to O’Neill’s letter and said that Yates’ conversations with the White House “are likely covered by the presidential communications privilege and possibly the deliberative process privilege. The president owns those privileges.”

Schools’ letter continued: “Therefore, to the extent Ms. Yates needs consent to disclose the details of those communications to [the House intelligence committee], she needs to consult with the White House. She need not obtain separate consent from the [DOJ].”

Yates’ lawyer dismissed the points raised in Schools’ letter, saying in a separate letter to White House counsel Don McGahn that any claim of privilege “has been waived as a result of the multiple public comments of current senior White House officials describing the January 2017 communications.” He then informed the White House of Yates’ “intention to provide information” at the hearing. The day O’Neill sent that letter to McGahn, Nunes canceled the public congressional hearing that would have included Yates’ testimony.

Devin NunesGetty ImagesDevin Nunes.

After the Post reported its findings, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff reiterated the need for Congress to hold a public, open hearing on the investigation.

“We are aware that former AG Yates intended to speak [about the events leading up to Michael Flynn’s resignation], and sought permission to testify from the White House,” read a statement released by Schiff. “Whether the White House’s desire to avoid a public claim of executive privilege to keep her from providing the full truth on what happened contributed to the decision to cancel today’s hearing, we do not know.”

It continued: But we would urge that the open hearing be rescheduled … and that Ms. Yates be permitted to testify freely and openly so that the public may understand, among other matters, when the President was informed that his national security advisor had misled the Vice President and through him, the country, and why the President waited as long as he did to fire Mr. Flynn.”

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