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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, May 09, 2017

 

Sally lays it down

by Tom Sullivan

The guts of yesterday's Yates-Clapper testimony from the Washington Post:

Former acting attorney general Sally Yates testified Monday that she expected White House officials to “take action’’ on her January warning that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn could be blackmailed by Russia, offering her first public statements about the national security concerns that rocked the early days of the Trump administration.

Yates’s testimony to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee capped months of debate over her role in the ouster of Flynn, a retired general who stayed on at the White House for 18 days after Yates’s warning.
“[T]o state the obvious, you don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians,” Yates testified. One preliminary conclusion to draw from the testimony is Trump didn't care.

The transcript is here.

There is plenty of other coverage of the Senate's hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 elections, as well as of the standard-issue GOP buffoonery we have come to expect. (Do watch former acting attorney general Sally Yates dismantle Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.) But a few moments went by in the testimony yesterday by Yates and former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper that have received little attention.

It suffices to say, Republican senators on the panel were less interested in Russian interference in U.S. elections than in changing the subject. Much of their time was spent firing pointed questions at Sally Yates for defying President Trump's travel ban because she (and subsequent court decisions) determined it to be unlawful. As Yates herself and Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy reminded them, during her confirmation hearings she had promised Republicans she would do defy the president if a similar situation arose under then-President Obama.

Another subject of at least Russia-related focus was the subject of U.S. persons' communications being incidentally captured by U.S. intelligence services because they were communicating with foreign targets. The names of non-targeted U.S. persons are typically redacted. Republicans wanted to know if anyone had requested unmasking of members of the 2016 presidential campaigns. Republican chair, Sen. Lindsay Graham (S.C.) started off the "lightning round" by trying to find out who leaked Flynn information to the Washington Post. He wanted to know who had the authority to unmask sensitive intercepts:
GRAHAM: OK. Now about surveillance, this is very important, an American citizen cannot be surveilled in the United States for colluding with a foreign government unless you have a warrant. Is that a true statement of the law?

YATES: That's right.

GRAHAM: Is it fair to say that incidental collection occurs, even in the united States?

YATES: That's correct as well, yes.

GRAHAM: OK. So there's two situations that we would have found out what General Flynn said to the Russian bastard. If there was a FISA warrant focused on him, was there?

YATES: You asking?

GRAHAM: Yes, either one of you.

YATES: Again I think you know I'm not going to answer whether there was a FISA warrant. Nor am I even going to talk about whether General Flynn was talking to the Russians.

GRAHAM: OK.

CLAPPER: Oh I have to obviously going to go along with ...

GRAHAM [YATES WaPo transcript is wrong here]: Well if he wasn't talking to the Russians, we've had a hearing for no good reason. So clearly he's talking to the Russians and we know about it. So if there is no FISA warrant, and I'm going to find out about this by the way. The other way that we knew what he was talking about, the Russia (inaudible) was incidentally surveilled. So those were the two options. Do we know who unmasked the conversation between the Russian ambassador and General Flynn? Was there unmasking in this situation?

CLAPPER: Are you looking at me?

GRAHAM: Yes sir.

CLAPPER: I don't know.

GRAHAM: Do you Ms. Yates?

YATES: I can't speak to this specific situation. But can I try to clarify one point on this unmasking thing?

GRAHAM: Very quickly.

YATES: OK I'll try to do it quickly. As a consumer of intelligence I would -- for example, I would receive intelligence reports from various agencies.

GRAHAM: I get that, no.

YATES: Now often times the names are already unmasked by the intelligence agencies ...

GRAHAM: The bottom line here is I want to know how it got to the Washington Post. Somebody had to have access to the information and they gave it to the Washington Post, is that a fair statement?

YATES: That's right. That's what it looks like to me.

GRAHAM: Is that right General Clapper?

CLAPPER: Yes.

GRAHAM: And it was -- neither one of you did it?

YATES: That's right.

CLAPPER: That's right.

GRAHAM: How many people can request unmasking of American citizen in our government, General Clapper, how many?

CLAPPER: I don't have an exact number. It's I think fairly limited, because it's a -- normally fairly high level officials.

GRAHAM: How did you know that General Flynn was talking to the Russian's who told you?

YATES: And I can't reveal that in an open setting. But what I was trying to say was, is that often times we receive intelligence reports where the name of the American citizen is already unmasked, and it's unmasked by the intel agency because, not based on anybody's request, but because the name of that citizen is essential.

GRAHAM: Is that the situation here?

YATES: I can't -- Senator, I cannot...

(CROSSTALK)

GRAHAM: Thank you. My four minutes is up. Thank you both. But I want to know the answer to these questions.
The GOP is looking for an a) "fairly high level officials" from the Obama White House they can accuse of poking around for dirt in the intercepted communications of members of the Republican presidential campaign or transition team, who then b) leaked the incriminating information on Flynn to the press. Graham wants the records of who requested unmasking. What Yates implies (twice) is that nobody unmasked Flynn's name. The transcripts arrived that way from the intelligence services who thought it essential to pass on. Which suggests the leak might have come from further upstream. And which has little to do with Russian election meddling, the ostensible reason for the hearing.

The elephant in the room is named Jared Kushner. His name (and Trump's sons names) went unmentioned, but not unnoticed by Sen. Al Franken. He wondered why Trump took no action on Flynn until the Washington Post revealed his contacts with the Russians. It was a lengthy series of rhetorical questions not aimed at eliciting an answer:
FRANKEN: This is -- General Flynn after that, for 18 days stayed there and was in one classified thing after another. There are policies that deal with who gets clearance, security clearance and not.

The executive order 12968 outlines the rules for security clearances and says that when there is a credible allegation that raises concern about someone's fitness to access classified information, that person's clearance should be suspended, pending investigations, is that right?

The executive order also states that clearance holders must always demonstrate, quote, "trustworthiness, honesty, reliability, discretion and sound judgment, as well as freedom from allegiances and potential for coercion." Is that right?

And yet, the White House Council did not understand why the Department of Justice was concerned.

YATES: Well, to be fair to Mr. McGahn, I think the issue that he raised, he wasn't clear on was why we cared that Michael Flynn had lied to the vice president and others, why that was a matter of ...

(CROSSTALK)

FRANKEN: I think that's clear.

YATES: Within DOJ jurisdiction.

FRANKEN: I think that's so clear, I can't...

YATES: Yes.

FRANKEN: And the president had told -- President Obama had told the incoming president-elect two days after the election, don't hire this guy.

YATES: I don't know anything about that.

FRANKEN: Well, that's what we've heard.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANKEN: And we have McGahn doesn't understand what's wrong with this? And then we have Spicer, the press secretary, saying the president was told about this. The president was told about this in late January, according to the press secretary.

So now he's got a guy who has been, the former president said, don't hire this guy. He's clearly compromised. He's lied to the vice president. And he keeps him on, and he lets him be in all these classified phone -- lets him talk with Putin. President of the United States and the national security adviser sit in the oval office and discuss this with Putin.

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? I mean, isn't it possible that the reason -- because you ask yourself, why wouldn't you fire a guy who did this? And all I can think of is that he would say, well, we've got all these other people in the administration who have had contacts. We have all these other people in the administration who coordinated, who are talking. Maybe that. I'm just trying to -- we're trying to put a puzzle together here, everybody.

And maybe, just maybe, he didn't get rid of a guy who lied to the vice president, who got paid by the Russians, who went on Russia Today, because there are other people in his administration who met secretly with the Russians and didn't reveal it until later, until they were caught. That may be why it took him 18 days, until it became public, to get rid of Mike Flynn, who is a danger to this republic.

Care to comment? (LAUGHTER)

YATES: I don't think I'm going to touch that, senator. Thank you.
If only Marty Feldman had stuck his head inside the door, blurted out "Kushner!" and somewhere nearby we heard horses rear.

Michelle Goldberg observes how much time was not spent by Republicans on the Russian election meddling. Clapper thought that's what he was there to talk about:
Under questioning by Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Clapper attempted to focus matters: “I understand how critical leaks are and unmasking and all these ancillary issues. 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. And that to me is a huge deal.” But as this hearing once again made clear, it is not a huge deal to most Republicans in Congress.
Trump last night changed his Twitter banner to declare -- again -- that Clapper had cleared him of any collusion with the Russians. What Clapper revealed yesterday was that he was in no position to know if there was evidence or not. CNN:
Throughout the Russia probes, the Trump White House has pointed to testimony earlier this year from Clapper that he had seen no evidence in the January intelligence report of collusion between the President's campaign and Russia. That was before FBI Director James Comey publicly revealed that the FBI was, in fact, investigating that question.

Clapper said Comey's March 20 testimony was the first he heard of the FBI investigation. He later said that his original assessment was that there was no evidence he had seen worth including in the intelligence assessment -- but Yates later said that she could not answer the question because she did not want to reveal any classified information.

The implication from both officials' testimonies was that there may, indeed, be evidence of collusion -- this after months of the White House arguing that Clapper was clear there is no evidence.
Max Boot at Foreign Policy:
None of Trump’s evasions or counteraccusations can change the fact that a grave crime was committed against our democracy, and that we need to get the full story if only to prevent the Russians from doing it again. Republicans may disagree, but imagine how they would feel if the situation were reversed and President Hillary Clinton were accused of conniving with a hostile foreign power? They would be demanding answers. If they have a shred of intellectual integrity or sheer patriotism, they should do the same now even when the allegations concern a member of their own party.
Don't hold your breath.