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Former Obama Officials Sally Yates, James Clapper Testify On Russia

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates says that in the very first week of the Trump administration, she warned the White House about a major problem. She says National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was making misleading statements about the nature of a conversation he had with Russia's ambassador during the presidential transition.

Yates said that Flynn was lying to Vice President Mike Pence and others and that the lies were so specific, Flynn was opening himself up to possible Russian blackmail. Yates made those dramatic claims this afternoon during a hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee.

NPR's Scott Detrow watched the hearing on Capitol Hill, and he's with us now. And Scott, why did Sally Yates say that she warned the White House about Michael Flynn?

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Yeah, and Yates, we should point out, was an Obama administration holdover at the time. She was running the Department of Justice before Jeff Sessions would be confirmed. And she says the Department of Justice knew that - what was said at that meeting between Flynn and Russia's ambassador. We can assume generally it's because the U.S. monitors the ambassador's conversations, though Yates did not say that at the meeting.

And she says the DOJ was really concerned for several reasons. One was that Vice President Pence was out there publicly repeating things that weren't true. But she says the department's more pressing concern was that Russian officials knew the truth about those conversations and that they could potentially hold this over Michael Flynn and blackmail him.

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SALLY YATES: Every time this lie was repeated and the misrepresentations were getting more and more specific as they were coming out - every time that happened, it increased the compromise. And you know, to state the obvious, you don't want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.

DETROW: And now, Kelly, we have heard about this before through reports. This is the first time we've heard it directly through Yates in public.

MCEVERS: Let me just take a minute here. I mean what Yates is saying is that a national security adviser to the president of the United States might have been compromised by the Russians. But we know that Flynn actually remained on the job for a couple of weeks after that, right?

DETROW: Right. And that's a key question we don't have a hard answer to - as to why the White House ignored these concerns and kept him on the job in sensitive meetings. You know, the White House has given different answers for the lag. Back in February just after Flynn resigned, Trump said he had asked for the resignation because Flynn misled the vice president. At the same time, Trump said that actually meeting with Russia's ambassador wasn't a problem.

But again, we know that Yates said that what Flynn said didn't match up with what he was saying publicly, and 18 days went by without the Trump administration doing anything to take him out of being in really sensitive positions.

MCEVERS: How's the White House responding to all of this now?

DETROW: They've been pretty defensive about it. I think it's telling. Before Yates even testified, President Trump was tweeting about this this morning. He said Yates should be asked how this meeting at the White House made it into the press in February, implying that Yates leaked the information. She said today that she did not.

But you know, Republican senators on the panel spent a lot of time asking about leaks, also asking about this issue of unmasking the identities of Americans who were kind of tied up in foreign intelligence gathering. Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper both denied that. He's testifying, too, but not making as much news here.

One other thing in terms of partisanship - Republicans are asking a lot about Yates' decision to not defend Trump's initial executive order on immigration. That's something she was fired for, and it seems like the goal is to try and portray her as someone motivated by partisanship here.

MCEVERS: And Scott, all this comes back, as we said, to conversations that Michael Flynn had with Russia's ambassador in December. Just remind us about that.

DETROW: Yeah, and how it fits into the big picture here - you know, recall there's a bipartisan consensus at this point that Russia worked to interfere in the election. And we know the FBI is investigating potential collusion or collaboration between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. So there's been a lot of scrutiny about any point of contact here, especially when we learned that Flynn was not telling the truth about that.

You know, Flynn's had several other issues as well, including the fact that he may have left key details off in security clearances when he was applying for security clearances, not disclosing receiving tens of thousands of dollars from Russian TV networks, among other things. So Flynn has a lot of problems, and I think there are going to be several more twists and turns in this, you know, in terms of him appearing before Senate committees and House committees and elsewhere.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Scott Detrow at the Capitol. Thank you very much.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.