Republicans and Democrats had noticeably diverging priorities Monday as they grilled former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper before a Senate Judiciary subpanel.
The focus of the hearing was Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Democrats arguably stuck to the theme more than Republicans, focusing primarily on Yates’ warnings to the White House in January that former national security adviser Michael Flynn could be susceptible to Russian blackmail.
“Is it possible that the reason that he didn’t fire him then was that, ‘Well, if I fire him for talking to the Russians about sanctions, and if I fire — what about all the other people on my team, who coordinated?'” said Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota. “Maybe that. I’m just trying to — we’re trying to put a puzzle together here, everybody.”
Most Republicans, meanwhile, used the hearing as an opportunity to grill Clapper and Yates about leaks of classified information — specifically, how The Washington Post learned what Flynn spoke about with Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, during the transition period. They also homed in on Yates’ decision to not enforce Trump’s first immigration order while she was the acting attorney general.
Perhaps the lone exception was Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, who focused his questions on Russia’s methods for interfering in Western elections. He asked Clapper about WikiLeaks and how likely it is that Russia was still trying to compromise congressional IT systems. He also asked Yates to “explain the bureaucratic process in which concerning information about political appointees” such as Flynn “would be brought to the attention of the attorney general.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the subcommittee, also asked questions that touched on both Flynn’s conduct and how the press became aware of it. He was the first to ask Yates directly what she told the White House about Flynn and his conversations with Kislyak.
Members of both parties asked whether either witness had evidence of improper contact between President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russians during the election.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, the committee’s top Democrat, followed up on Graham’s line of questioning by asking Yates how White House counsel Don McGahn reacted to her warning about Flynn and whether the prospect of criminal prosecution was addressed during their meetings.
‘Unmasking’ vs. Trump-Russia ties
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley set up Republicans’ pivot away from questions about Yates’ White House meeting and toward the issue of leaks of classified information.
He asked whether either Yates or Clapper had ever been “an anonymous source in news reports about matters relating to Trump,” or if either of them had ever requested “the unmasking of Mr. Trump, his associates, or any member of Congress.”
With regard to the unmasking, Clapper replied that, “yes, in one case I did that I can specifically recall, but I can’t discuss it any further than that.” Yates replied that she hadn’t.
Grassley then asked Clapper whether he had “any reason to believe that any agency” in the intelligence community had “withheld any relevant information” about Russia’s election interference. Clapper replied that the FBI may have chosen “to withhold investigatory sensitive information from the report” but that he doesn’t “know that to be a fact.”
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein pivoted back to asking Yates and Clapper about Flynn and Trump’s alleged ties to the Kremlin. She asked Clapper whether it was true that European intelligence agencies passed US agencies information about contact the Trump campaign had with Russia in late 2015. Clapper replied that it was, but that it was too sensitive to discuss in an open hearing.
Immigration ban controversy
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas then veered back to the question of “incidental collection on an American person.”
“Can you describe, briefly, the paper trail and the series — and the approval process that is required in order to allow that to happen? That’s not a trivial matter, is it?” Cornyn asked Clapper.
He then asked Yates about her “decision to refuse to defend the president’s executive order” on immigration in January, a subject that was revisited later by several Republican senators.
“I find it enormously disappointing that you somehow vetoed the decision of the Office of Legal Counsel with regard to the lawfulness of the president’s order and decided instead that you would counter the executive order of the president of the United States because you happen to disagree with it as a policy matter,” Cornyn said.
Yates responded swiftly.
“Let me make one thing clear. It is not purely as a policy matter. In fact, I’ll remember my confirmation hearing. In an exchange that I had with you and others of your colleagues where you specifically asked me in that hearing that if the president asked me to do something that was unlawful or unconstitutional and one of your colleagues said or even just that would reflect poorly on the Department of Justice, would I say no? And I looked at this, I made a determination that I believed that it was unlawful,” she said.
Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana used most of his time allotment to grill Yates about how she handled the immigration order. He also asked Clapper and Yates if either of them had ever leaked information to the press. At the end of the hearing, he asked how Flynn got a security clearance to serve as national security adviser if his conversations with Kislyak were so problematic.
NBC has since reported that Flynn did not obtain the broad security clearance he needed from the CIA to serve in that position before he was asked to resign in February.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz focused much of his time on the topic of surveillance.
“Director Clapper, you also testified that you’re not aware of any intercepted communications of any presidential candidates or campaigns, other than the Trump campaign that’s been discussed here. Is that correct?” Cruz asked. He then picked up where Cornyn left off, asking Yates if it is “correct that the constitution vests the executive authority in the president.”
“And if an attorney general disagrees with a policy decision of the president — a policy decision that is lawful — does the attorney general have the authority to direct the Department of Justice to defy the president’s order?” Cruz asked.
“I don’t know whether the attorney general has the authority to do that or not,” Yates replied. “But I don’t think it would be a good idea. And that’s not what I did in this case.” (Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy later addressed the immigration order briefly, asking Yates if she stands by her decision not to defend it.)
Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Chris Coons then questioned Yates and Clapper about Flynn and Russia’s election interference. Klobuchar asked Clapper if he thinks that “an independent commission” should be set up to investigate Russia’s meddling, while Coons asked Yates if she thought the White House handled her warnings about Flynn appropriately.
At one point, Clapper referred to questions about leaks and unmasking as “ancillary issues.”
“I understand how critical leaks are and unmasking and all these ancillary issues,” Clapper said. “But to me, the transcendent issue here is the Russian interference in our election process, and what that means to the erosion of the fundamental fabric of our democracy.”
More from Natasha Bertrand:
- Republicans and Democrats basically held 2 separate hearings with Sally Yates and James Clapper
- ‘He could be blackmailed by the Russians’: Sally Yates explains why she warned the White House about Michael Flynn
- Sally Yates and James Clapper testify before the Senate about Michael Flynn and Russia
- Sally Yates is set to give bombshell testimony about Michael Flynn and Russia — here’s what to expect
- Obama warned Trump against hiring Flynn as national security adviser
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