The former head of the US Department of Justice told Congress that she had warned the White House in January that Michael Flynn, the first national security adviser appointed by Donald Trump, could be blackmailed by Russia.
Sally Yates, who served as acting attorney-general early in the Trump administration, told Congress that she had warned the White House that Mr Flynn had left himself open to being compromised by Russia because he had lied to Mike Pence, the US vice-president, about discussions he had held with the Russian ambassador.
President Trump fired Mr Flynn, a retired general who had previously been ousted as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, after 24 days. Mr Flynn had come under scrutiny after it emerged that he had held phone calls with Sergei Kislyak, the Russian envoy, that referenced US sanctions on Russia. The conversations, which occurred before Mr Trump’s inauguration on January 20, potentially violated US law.
Ms Yates told the Senate judiciary committee — one of several Congressional committees investigating Russian interference in the US election — that Russian officials could compromise Mr Flynn because they knew that he had misled Mr Pence.
“That created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians,” Ms Yates told the Senate judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism.
Ms Yates said Don McGahn, White House counsel, had asked her if Mr Flynn should be fired and that she had replied that it “was up to them, but that we were giving them this information so that they could take action, and that was the first meeting”.
Ms Yates was fired by the White House after she ordered the justice department not to defend the travel ban that the administration proposed in January.
Mr Trump attacked Ms Yates on Twitter on Monday, writing: “Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to [White House] Counsel.” At the hearing, Ms Yates denied that she had anything to do with the leaked information that appeared in the media about Mr Flynn.
Democrats at the hearing questioned why Mr Trump had taken two weeks to fire Mr Flynn after Ms Yates had informed the White House that the retired general appeared to be lying to his colleagues.
The controversy surrounding Mr Flynn, who is being investigated by the FBI, has dogged the Trump administration for the past three months, particularly as the FBI looks into contacts between Mr Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian officials.
In March, the president came to the defence of Mr Flynn by tweeting that his former aide should shield himself from a “witch hunt” by seeking immunity in exchange for testifying before Congress.
In recent weeks, however, the White House has attempted to distance itself from Mr Flynn, a brash retired military intelligence officer, who campaigned with Mr Trump during the 2016 race. Mr Trump on Monday blamed Mr Obama for the controversy. “General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama Administration — but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that,” the president tweeted.
Earlier on Monday, US media reported that Mr Obama had urged Mr Trump not to appoint Mr Flynn as his national security adviser. Mr Flynn was fired as the head of the DIA during the Obama administration because of concerns about his management style and claims that he was twisting intelligence to compile what critics called “Flynn facts”. Ms Yates revealed at the hearing that the FBI interviewed Mr Flynn in January.
In March, James Comey, the FBI director, testified before Congress that his agency was probing possible links between the Trump presidential campaign and the Kremlin. Following the Senate hearing on Monday, Mr Trump tweeted: “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?”
At the hearing, Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said the White House had “yet to take responsibility for or explain these and other troubling Russia links, dismissing facts as ‘fake news’ and downplaying the significance of individuals involved”.
Testifying at the same hearing as Ms Yates, James Clapper, a retired air force general who served as director of national intelligence during the Obama administration, said the alleged Russian actions during the 2016 campaign “constituted the high-water mark” of efforts since the 1960s to disrupt US elections.
“They must be congratulating themselves for having exceeded their wildest expectations,” Mr Clapper said. “They are now emboldened to continue such activities in the future, both here and around the world, and to do so even more intensely.”
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi