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Trump Russia probe hit by White House gag claims

The House intelligence committee cancelled a hearing on alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia after administration officials reportedly told an Obama-era appointee that she could not testify about conversations she had concerning Michael Flynn, who was fired as White House national security adviser.

Sally Yates, the acting attorney-general early in the Trump administration, was due to testify before the committee on Tuesday. But the White House sought to block her from appearing before the committee chaired by Republican Devin Nunes, the Washington Post reported.

The report piled pressure on Mr Nunes, a Trump supporter who Democrats have demanded recuse himself from the investigations into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.

The White House denied that it had blocked Ms Yates, who President Trump fired in January after she refused to order the justice department to defend his original travel ban in court. “The White House has taken no action to prevent Sally Yates from testifying and the Department of Justice specifically told her that it would not stop her and to suggest otherwise is completely irresponsible,” said Sean Spicer, White House spokesman.

The House intelligence committee is one of two Congressional committees investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and alleged links between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee, suggested on Twitter that the hearing may have been cancelled because the White House “didn’t want Sally Yates to testify re Gen Flynn’s deception,” but did not want to formally claim executive privilege. On Monday, Mr Schiff called for Mr Nunes to recuse himself from leading the Russia probe.

Mr Trump fired Mr Flynn, who served only 24 days as national security adviser, after the retired general allegedly lied to Mike Pence, the vice-president, about conversations he had last year with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Mr Flynn originally denied discussing sanctions — a claim that Ms Yates told the White House was wrong.

One focus of her appearance before the committee would have been conversations she had held with White House officials about Mr Flynn. After the House committee invited her to testify, her lawyer sought approval from the justice department. According to a subsequent letter from her lawyer to the department, DoJ officials said her communications with the White House were “client confidences that she may not disclose”.

In the letter, David O’Neill, her lawyer, said the determination that she could not testify was “overbroad, incorrect and inconsistent with the department’s historical approach to the testimony of current and former senior officials”.

In a reference to Mr Flynn, Mr O’Neill said that Ms Yates should be able to tell Congress about her concerns regarding the “conduct of a senior official”. He added any White House claim of privilege was inappropriate given that other administration officials had publicly discussed those concerns, which led to her being fired.

Sally Yates, former acting attorney-general © AFP

Last week, Scott Schools, a top justice official, replied that Ms Yates’ communications with the White House about Mr Flynn “were likely covered” by presidential privilege, and said any approval for her testimony must come from the White House. “The president owns those privileges,” he wrote. The same day, Mr O’Neil wrote to White House counsel Donald McGahn saying that her conversations were not covered by executive privilege.

The latest episode comes as Mr Nunes faces intense scrutiny over his own actions. Last week, the California lawmaker claimed in a press conference that communications of Mr Trump and his campaign aides were intercepted by US intelligence in the course of the surveillance of foreign officials. The claim was criticised as an attempt to partly validate claims that Mr Trump had made without substantiation.

It has since emerged that Mr Nunes, who has still not shared the information with his committee colleagues, quietly visited the White House the day before, leading to speculation that the information he was referring to was provided by someone at the behest of the president. He has refused to say who provided the intelligence.

The Russia investigation has most recently embroiled Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and close aide. The White House said he had volunteered to appear before Senate investigators to address meetings he held last year with both the Russian ambassador and the head of Vnesheconombank, a state-owned Russian bank.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, has called for lawmakers to stop focusing on alleged ties between his aides and Russian officials, and instead probe alleged connections between the Clintons and Moscow. “Why isn’t the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia, Russian speech . . . money to Bill, the Hillary Russian “reset” praise of Russia by Hillary, or Podesta Russian company. Trump Russia story is a hoax,” he tweeted on Tuesday.

Follow David J Lynch and Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @davidjlynch & @dimi

Via FT