Outgoing President Barack Obama revealed in early 2017 that he knew details from phone calls incoming Trump administration National Security Adviser Michael Flynn made, surprising one of the Department of Justice’s top officials, according to newly released documents.
The department on Thursday moved to dismiss the criminal case against Flynn that rested on the phone calls.
Sally Yates, the deputy attorney general at the time, recalled meeting with Obama at the White House on Jan. 5, 2017, along with a number of other officials, including then-FBI Director James Comey.
After dismissing everyone but Yates, Comey, then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and then-Vice President Joe Biden, Obama told them he had “learned of the information about Flynn” and the lieutenant general’s discussions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Kislyak’s phone calls were being wiretapped by government officials, allowing them to hear what Flynn told him.
Obama told the group he didn’t want additional information about the matter but wanted to know whether the White House should, in light of the information, treat Flynn differently.
Yates “was so surprised by the information she was hearing that she was having a hard time processing it and listening to the conversation at the same time,” special counsel Robert Mueller team members who interviewed her wrote in a report about the interview.
Yates told them that she didn’t know what Obama was talking about but figured it out based on the conversation. She did not know who told Obama about the details. She recalled Comey mentioning the Logan Act, a centuries-old law that’s never been successfully prosecuted.
Flynn was head of the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Obama administration. The president fired him for alleged insubordination.
Comey told members of Congress in March 2017 that he briefed then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on the wiretapped phone calls in late December 2016 or early January 2017.
Clapper briefed Obama, Biden, and Obama’s senior team about the calls and other related matters in the first week of January, Comey said. The onetime FBI director said he briefed it to Clapper before Clapper briefed Obama.
“We did not disseminate this [redacted] in any finished intelligence, although our people judged was appropriate, for reasons that I hope are obvious, to have Mr. Flynn’s name unmasked,” Comey said, according to a newly declassified transcript.
Unmasking is a term used by intelligence officials for revealing the name of a U.S. citizen.
The two documents were released on May 7 by the Justice Department as part of its motion to dismiss the case against Flynn.
Andrew McCabe, the former acting director of the FBI, said in his book that Clapper “verbally briefed” Obama on the Flynn phone calls after being briefed by Comey.
Clapper told Congress, though, in another newly released transcript, that he did not brief Obama on Flynn-Kislyak calls.
The Department of Justice moved Thursday to dismiss the case against Flynn, arguing the Jan. 24, 2017, interview “was untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Flynn.”
The investigation itself was “no longer justifiably predicated,” said Timothy Shea, interim U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, in the motion to dismiss. “The FBI had, in the Bureau’s own words, prepared to close because it had yielded an ‘absence of any derogatory information,'” he added.
Flynn pleaded guilty to one count of lying during the interview but recently moved to withdraw his plea.
Because the interview wasn’t done as part of a legitimate investigation, “we feel really that a crime cannot be established here,” Attorney General William Barr told CBS on Thursday.
The call in question with Kislyak contained “nothing inconsistent with the Obama administration’s policies, and … was in U.S. interests,” he said.