Former acting AG Sally Yates asked DOJ if she could testify at Russia hearing

Last Updated Mar 28, 2017 2:53 PM EDT

CBS News has obtained a March 24th letter from the Justice Department to Sally Yates that says that DOJ lacks the authority to give Yates permission to testify before Congress about links between Russian officials and Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign. 

Yates had informed the Justice Department that she had intended to testify about the non-classified information related to her concerns “about the conduct of a senior official,” thought to be then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

In its letter to her attorney, DOJ says that most of her testimony would “likely [be] covered by the presidential communications privilege and possibly the deliberative process privilege.” Deputy Associate Attorney General Scott Schools, who wrote the letter, goes on to say, “The President owns those privileges,” so therefore, she “needs to consult with the White House” if she wants to testify. The Washington Post first reported the correspondence between Yates’ attorney and the Justice Department in a story with a headline reading, “Trump Administration sought to block Sally Yates from testifying to Congress on Russia. 

“The Washington Post story is entirely false. 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,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington June 28, 2016.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington June 28, 2016.

J. David Ake, AP

She did consult the White House, a source close to Yates said, but she didn’t receive a response before she learned the hearing had been canceled. Yates disagrees with DOJ’s claim that her conversations with the White House would be protected by Presidential Communications Privilege. She had planned to testify about things the White House had publicly discussed at length and therefore, she believed any alleged privilege had been waived. The source said her testimony would have contradicted statements by the White House about these events.  

During the White House briefing, Spicer expanded on the White House response, confirming that Yates’ lawyer had written to the White House for permission to testify. He said that a line in that letter said that if the White House didn’t respond before the hearing date, Yates would interpret the administration’s silence as approval. “We didn’t respond -- we encouraged them to go ahead,” Spicer said.

“I hope she testifies. I look forward to it,” Spicer declared.  

In January, when she was the acting attorney general, Yates told White House Counsel Don McGahn that U.S. intelligence had intercepted Flynn’s calls and had proof that his public denials about the nature of his conversations with Russian Envoy Sergey Kislyak during the transition period were false. Flynn had told Trump officials, including Mike Pence, that he had not talked to Kislyak about U.S. sanctions against Russia -- as the Obama administration was implementing those sanctions. The Justice Department, Yates told McGahn, was concerned that his deception opened him up to possible blackmail. 

Top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in a statement that that “we do not know” whether the White House’s “desire to avoid a public claim of executive privilege” played a role in keeping her from “providing the full truth on what happened.”

The committee was originally to have met Tuesday to hear from Yates, former DNI James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan, but the hearing was canceled by Intelligence Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.  

Schiff’s statement also went on to call for a new date for the hearing.

“[W]e would urge that the open hearing be rescheduled without further delay and that Ms. Yates be permitted to testify freely and openly so that the public may understand, among other matters, when the President was informed that his national security advisor had misled the Vice President and through him, the country,” he wrote, “and why the President waited as long as he did to fire Mr. Flynn.”