Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that when the FBI interviewed then-incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn in January 2017, it was done without her authorization, and that she was upset when she found out about it.
Committee chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Yates about the circumstances surrounding the interview, particularly the actions of then-FBI Director James Comey.
"I was upset that Director Comey didn't coordinate that with us and acted unilaterally," Yates said.
"Did Comey go rogue?" Graham asked.
"You could use that term, yes," Yates agreed.
Yates said she also took issue with Comey for not telling her that Flynn's communications with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were being investigated and that she first learned about this from President Barack Obama during an Oval Office meeting. Yates said she was "irritated" with Comey for not telling her about this earlier.
That meeting, which took place on Jan. 5, 2017, was of great interest to Graham, who wanted to know why Obama knew about Flynn's conversations before she did. Graham and other Republicans have speculated that Obama wanted Flynn investigated for nefarious purposes. Yates claimed that this was not the case, and explained why Obama was aware of the calls at the time.
Yates said that after Obama placed sanctions on Russia, the Kremlin vowed to take retaliatory action, only to suddenly change course. She said Obama wanted to find out why, which led to the Justice Department discovering Flynn's talks with Kislyak.
Those discussions included a conversation about sanctions that Obama had placed on Russia, with Flynn encouraging Russia not to retaliate too harshly because the incoming Trump administration would be different from Obama's.
"The purpose of this meeting was for the president to find out whether – based on the calls between Ambassador Kislyak and Gen. Flynn – the transition team needed to be careful about what it was sharing with Gen. Flynn," Yates said, noting that the meeting was not about influencing an investigation, which "would have set off alarms for me."
Handwritten notes from then-FBI agent Peter Strzok indicated that Joe Biden, who was vice president at the time, may have mentioned the Logan Act at the Jan. 5 meeting. The Logan Act is a 1799 law that prohibits unauthorized American citizens from communicating with foreign governments or officials "in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States." It has never been used to successfully prosecute anyone.
When asked if Biden mentioned the Logan Act, Yates said she could not recall. She did say that Comey spoke about the Logan Act, but that she did not remember if he said this during the Oval Office meeting or in a conversation afterward.
Speaking further on the Flynn investigation, Yates said she supported the probe. She also supported Flynn's prosecution for providing false statements to the FBI, stating that Flynn's lies were "absolutely material" to the investigation. She said that the Justice Department's decision to dismiss Flynn's case was "highly irregular," and that in her nearly 30 years as a federal prosecutor she had "never seen" anything like it.
Another frequent topic of conversation at the hearing was the FBI's use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to conduct surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The Justice Department Inspector General's office concluded that there were several omissions and inaccuracies in the FBI's warrant applications, including relying on the unverified dossier compiled by ex-British spy Christopher Steele as opposition research for Hillary Clinton's campaign.
Yates denied knowing that the FISA warrant applications had problems when she signed off on them. She also denied knowing that her own deputy, Bruce Ohr, had facilitated meetings between Steele and the FBI. That led Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., to express exasperation over the apparent ignorance of DOJ leadership during the Obama administration.
"Nobody appears to know anything in this government, and yet somehow a federal court was deliberately and systematically misled, so severely that they now say they can’t trust anything that the FBI did," Hawley said.
Despite claiming that she was unaware of wrongdoing at the time, Yates still accepted responsibility for what happened.
“As the deputy attorney general and the number two person at the Justice Department, I was responsible for the actions of every single employee at DOJ, all 113,000 of them," she said. "That includes everybody at FBI, DEA, and ATF and U.S. Attorney’s offices and all the lawyers at the Department of Justice. I was responsible, in that sense, for the actions of all of them.”