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Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates: I Told White House Russia Could Blackmail Michael Flynn

WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — An Obama administration official who warned the Trump White House about contacts between one of its key advisers and Russia spoke publicly for the first time Monday about the concerns she raised.

Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified Monday before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

"I had two in-person meetings and one phone call with the White House Counsel about Mr. Flynn," Yates said.

Yates said she met with the White House Counsel Don McGahn on Jan. 26 to warn McGahn that press accounts of statements from Vice President Mike Pence and other high-level White House officials had made about Michael Flynn were untrue. Yates testified that she believed that these statements were made because they reflected what Flynn had told the White House, not because anyone at the White House was intentionally saying anything untrue. She also told McGahn Flynn's underlying conduct itself was also concerning.

Yates says she told McGahn that the Russians knew about what Flynn had done and the Russians knew that Flynn had misled the vice president and others about what he had done, and that left Flynn in a "compromised" position where he could be subject to blackmail.

Yates emphasized that she did not believe anyone from the White House or vice president were intentionally misleading people, but were repeating what they had been told.

"The misrepresentations were getting more and more specific," Yates said. "And to state the obvious, you don't want your National Security Adviser compromised with the Russians."

"We felt that the vice president was entitled to know that the information that he was given and that he was giving to the American people was not true," Yates said.

The highly anticipated hearing, Yates's first appearance on Capitol Hill since her firing in January, was expected to fill in key details in the chain of events that led to the ouster of Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump's first national security adviser, in the early weeks of the administration.

The February resignation followed media reports that Flynn had discussed U.S.-imposed sanctions on Russia with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition period, which was contrary to the public representations of the White House.

Yates was expected to contradict public White House official statements about this issue, CBS News' Jeff Pegues reported.

"She apparently has some information as to who knew what when, that she is willing to share," said Senate Judiciary Committee member Dianne Feinstein.

In a Twitter post ahead of the hearing Monday morning, Trump said "General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama Administration - but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that."

"Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Counsel," the president said in a second tweet.

White House officials have said publicly that Yates merely wanted to give them a "heads-up" about Flynn's Russian contacts, but Yates testified that she spoke to the White House directly about the incidents. Spokesman Sean Spicer on Monday pointed the finger at the Obama administration for not vetting Flynn.

"So the question you have to ask yourself really is if President Obama was truly concerned about General Flynn, why didn't he suspend General Flynn's security clearance which they had just re-approved months earlier?" he said during his daily press briefing Monday.

Trump has said he has no nefarious ties to Russia and isn't aware of any involvement by his aides in Moscow's interference in the election. He's dismissed FBI and congressional investigations into his campaign's possible ties to the election meddling as a "hoax" driven by Democrats bitter over losing the White House. He's also accused Obama officials of illegally leaking classified information about Flynn's contacts with Kislyak.

National Intelligence Director James Clapper, who attracted attention for a March television interview in which he said that he had seen no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia at the time he left government in January, also testified Monday. Republicans have seized on that statement as vindication for the Trump campaign, but investigations are ongoing.

Yates, a longtime federal prosecutor and Obama administration holdover, was fired Jan. 31 by Trump after refusing to defend the administration's travel ban.

She had been scheduled to appear in March before the House intelligence committee, but that hearing was canceled.

The subcommittee meeting Monday is one of three congressional probes into the Russia interference, along with House and Senate intelligence panels. Yet questions remain about whether the Republican-led committees can conduct truly independent investigations.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and chair of the Senate Judiciary crime and terrorism subcommittee, has been outspoken about Russia's interference in the 2016 election and called for a stronger U.S. response than the sanctions currently levied.

Graham and top Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island promised a bipartisan probe, but last week it was revealed that Graham independently invited Rice to testify, without Whitehouse's sign-on. Rice, a longtime target of Republicans, declined because her attorney said the invitation came late and without bipartisan consent.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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