The Trump administration has insisted for months that former national security adviser Michael Flynn was ousted in February specifically because he misled Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
That rationale was dealt a forceful blow on Monday, when former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified that Flynn’s “underlying conduct was problematic in and of itself.”
Yates repeatedly circled back to Flynn’s “underlying conduct” in a hearing of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism, saying she made it expressly clear to White House Counsel Don McGahn in a phone call and two in-person meetings that it was a matter of concern.
Yates said she couldn’t reveal the nature of that conduct because it was drawn from classified information. But she emphasized that Russia knew about it too, leading the Justice Department under her tenure to believe that Flynn was “compromised with respect to the Russians.”
“Not only did we believe that the Russians knew this but that they likely had proof of this information,” Yates testified. “And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security advisor essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is also probing into Russia’s election interference, said on Twitter that Yates’ comments about Flynn’s “conduct” were the “most striking” part of her testimony.
Most striking about testimony: Yates' conclusion Flynn's "underlying conduct" was problematic. Not just his lie but what he was lying about. https://t.co/M9ojwUkdcE
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) May 8, 2017
Yates testified that she first met with McGahn on Jan. 26 to provide detailed accounts about Flynn’s actions; how Pence and other senior Trump administration officials were unknowingly making false statements to the public about Flynn’s contacts with Russia; and Flynn’s Jan. 24 interview with the FBI at the White House.
The purpose of the conversation with McGahn, which Yates said she continued in another meeting on Jan. 27 and in a phone call on Jan. 30, was to urge the Trump White House to “take action” regarding Flynn.
That wouldn’t happen until Feb. 13, several days after the Washington Post reported that Flynn lied to Pence about discussing U.S. sanctions against Russia with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Lauding Flynn as a “wonderful man” who was treated “very, very unfairly” by the media, Trump said he accepted Flynn’s resignation.
What exactly Flynn did to ring such alarm bells at the DOJ is unclear. But in the days since he departed the White House, many details have emerged about his work on behalf of foreign governments.
Flynn belatedly registered as a foreign agent on March 7, acknowledging that the work his consulting firm was doing while he served as a top Donald Trump campaign adviser and designated national security adviser to the President-elect “could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey.”
Flynn Intel Group was paid $530,000 between August and December 2016 by Inovo BV, a Dutch firm run by a Turkish businessman, according to Flynn’s filings under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
While he was privy to classified national security secrets, Flynn was meeting with senior Turkish officials and overseeing research and promotional materials for Inovo.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dismissed Flynn’s lobbying work as a “personal matter, a business matter,” although it was twice brought to the attention of the administration during the transition. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) warned Pence about Flynn’s work for Inovo in a Nov. 18, 2016 letter, while Flynn’s lawyer reportedly told McGahn about it during the transition.
Politico later reported that Ekim Alptekin, the Turkish businessman who runs Inovo, has extensive business ties to Russia. Alptekin ran his lobbying efforts with Ukraine-born businessman Dmitri Zaikin, and both men have negotiated business deals with Vladimir Putin’s government, according to Politico.
In late March, Flynn offered to be interviewed by the FBI and both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees in exchange for a grant of immunity. None of those parties appear to have accepted his offer.
Last year, Flynn said that receiving immunity “means you probably committed a crime.”
The ousted national security adviser’s legal headaches worsened in early April after financial disclosure firms released by the White House revealed that he failed to inform it and the Office of Government Ethics about speaking fees he received from three Russia-linked firms.
In an amended financial filing submitted after he left the administration, Flynn disclosed that he was paid by an air freight company tied to the Russia-based Volga-Dnepr Group, a subsidiary of the Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab, and Kremlin-backed propaganda outlet RT.
The Trump administration has brushed off responsibility for adequately vetting Flynn before bringing him onboard, shifting the blame onto the Obama administration for granting Flynn a national security clearance and then not revoking it when concerns arose.
An hour before Yates appeared before the Senate panel and detailed her repeated, forceful warnings about Flynn’s “problematic” conduct, Spicer acknowledged reports that former President Barack Obama warned Trump not to hire Flynn two days after the real estate mogul won the election, saying Obama made it clear that “he wasn’t exactly a fan.”
If there was “truly a concern,” Spicer insisted in his daily briefing, the Obama administration should have suspended Flynn’s security clearance long ago.