Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates will be in a tight spot Wednesday in front of a Senate panel, forced to square her 2017 testimony that Michael Flynn could be blackmailed by Russia with new revelations that the probe was an FBI setup targeting the Trump White House.
Ms. Yates, the former No. 2 official at the Justice Department, is the second player to get grilled in the Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into the origins of Crossfire Hurricane, the code name for the FBI’s search for collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin’s plans to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Her successor as deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, testified in June.
Crossfire Hurricane eventually morphed into special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election and whether President Trump or any members of his campaign or administration were involved.
Republicans also are eager to hear from Ms. Yates because she was in the Oval Office for the Jan. 5, 2017, meeting involving President Obama, FBI Director James B. Comey and Vice President Joseph R. Biden, where surveillance of Flynn was discussed.
The last time Ms. Yates appeared before the committee, in May 2017, she said she warned the Trump administration that Flynn, who briefly served as the president’s first national security adviser, may have been compromised by Russia.
She said Flynn was susceptible to blackmail because he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his conversations with Sergey Kislyak, who was Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. during the presidential transition period.
Flynn pleaded guilty twice but later recanted and professed his innocence.
Court documents uncovered by the Justice Department revealed that the FBI found nothing illegal or wrong with the Flynn-Kislyak calls and even tried to close the case against Flynn, but anti-Trump FBI agent Peter Strzok and other top officials fought to keep it open.
Those revelations raise doubts about whether Flynn was compromised after all. The Justice Department announced it would drop its prosecution of Flynn after the documents became public, though a federal judge continues to push for the trial to proceed.
Mike Davis, a former attorney for the Senate Judiciary Committee and founder of the conservative Article III Project, called Ms. Yates‘ testimony “critically important.”
“Sally Yates will provide key testimony in light of explosive new evidence we’ve learned since her prior testimony about a deeply troubling and potentially illegal scheme — cooked up in the Oval Office by President Obama, Vice President Biden and their most senior aides — to target General Flynn,” he said.
Also participating in that Oval Office meeting on Jan. 5, 2017, were other Obama administration officials, including CIA Director John O. Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper and National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice, who is now on the short list to be Mr. Biden’s running mate.
When Ms. Yates testified in 2017, the committee was unaware that Mr. Comey had gone behind her back to interview Flynn. She declined to answer more detailed questions about the Russia probe because it was still open at the time.
Now she won’t have that shield.
The latest revelations in the Flynn case could force Ms. Yates to shed new light on the Russia probe, said Curt Levey, president of the Committee for Justice, which advocates for appointing conservative judges to the federal bench.
“The landscape has somewhat changed,” he said. “It was easy for the Democrats to dismiss the idea there was any wrongdoing in the Russia investigation. Now we know enough that it is even harder to dismiss it. We can debate whether any laws were broken, but it is hard to deny wrongdoing.”
Mr. Davis agreed.
“When Yates testified in 2017, Yates testified only as to material favorable to the Democrats — Russia interfered in our election; Flynn allegedly made misstatements to Vice President Pence — but she didn’t tell the full story,” he said. “Yates needs to give live testimony under oath, subject to cross-examination, and for the American people to see.”
At least one high-profile member of the Trump administration has vouched for Ms. Yates.
Attorney General William Barr stood up for her in a May interview with CBS News. He said Mr. Comey “ignored” her.
“Deputy Attorney General Yates, I’ve disagreed with her about a couple of things, but, you know, here she upheld the fine tradition of the Department of Justice,” Mr. Barr said. “She said that the new administration has to be treated just like the Obama administration, and they should go and tell the White House about their findings. … And, you know, Director Comey ran around that.”
Despite the potential for shedding light on the Flynn investigation, Ms. Yates‘ testimony might not contain any new information. At a hearing with former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, he repeatedly told lawmakers that most of the decisions in the Russia probe were made before he arrived.
Some say the hearings should have been held sooner — not with the presidential election just months away.
J.D. Gordon, the 2016 Trump campaign director of national security and a former Pentagon spokesman, said the hearings were “a day late and a dollar short.”
“Republican senators really let President Trump and his team twist in the wind for years over this Trump–Russia hoax while barely doing anything against those who sabotaged the president and maliciously ruined many lives,” he said.
“Now if Americans are so inclined, they can remember their names forever and at least hold them accountable politically and possibly financially just like they did to Trump associates,” Mr. Gordon said.
Mr. Levey said there is always the chance for a witness to go off script and reveal new information, but he added that the value of Mr. Graham’s hearings is that it forces news media to keep talking about the Russia probe they have largely ignored.
“At the end, it is not the additional details but getting it out there in public so when people go to the polls they are aware of the proven wrongdoing of the people in the Justice Department as they are aware of the unproven allegations against Trump and history can’t sweep it under the rug,” he said.