Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates on Aug. 5 contradicted the content of notes written by an FBI special agent about the Jan. 5, 2017, White House meeting during which President Barack Obama personally discussed the investigation of President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
Yates told the Senate Judiciary Committee that it was FBI Director James Comey, not Vice President Joe Biden, who suggested that Flynn violated the Logan Act in his conversations with then-Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. She said she couldn’t recall whether Comey brought up the 18th-century law during the White House meeting or at another time.
Yates’s testimony directly contradicted handwritten notes taken by then-FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok, who plainly wrote that Biden mentioned the Logan Act during the conversation about intercepted calls between Flynn and Kislyak.
Yates also contradicted Strzok’s notes about the rest of the conversation. The special agent wrote that Obama told Comey to “make sure you look at things” and “have the right people on it.” Yates testified that Obama had merely mentioned that he was aware of the calls, didn’t want to know or influence anything, and asked whether certain intelligence should be withheld from Flynn during the transition.
“At this point, I didn’t know why the president was asking this question, because this was the first I had heard of the calls between Flynn and Kislyak,” Yates said in her opening remarks. “I was really surprised both that General Flynn engaged in these discussions and that Director Comey knew about them but I didn’t.”
Yates had already provided similar testimony to special counsel Robert Mueller, although she left Biden off the list of attendees when she described the meeting to the investigators. The contradictions unearthed by Strzok’s notes raised the question of whether she would stand by what she told Mueller.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is conducting the latest in a series of congressional probes into Crossfire Hurricane, the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign during and after the 2016 presidential election.
As part of the investigation, the bureau used an unverified dossier funded by the election campaign of Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton, to secure a warrant to spy on a Trump campaign associate. The FBI failed to inform the secret court that approved the warrants that Clinton funded the document behind some of the allegations in the paperwork. Yates signed the initial spy warrant application and the first renewal request. At the Aug. 5 hearing, she said she wouldn’t have signed the two applications if she had known then what she knows now.
Contradictions in the accounts of the Jan. 5, 2017, White House meeting continue to pile up. Strzok’s notes suggest the outgoing president directly engaged in the investigation of an incoming administration, undermining a long-running tradition of a peaceful transition of power. Yates’s highly-contradictory recollection of the events only raised more questions about what really happened.
Notably, Strzok’s handwritten notes appear to have been written in real time while he was either listening in on or being briefed about the meeting. Strzok had reason to believe the notes would never see the light of day and had little reason to record something that wasn’t said.
It’s still unclear how Obama learned of the Flynn–Kislyak intercepts. Comey said then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper briefed the president. Clapper told Congress he never briefed Obama on the calls. Yates said she doesn’t know how Obama came to learn of the intercepts. Trump on Aug. 5 suggested that Yates was the one who leaked the calls.
“Sally Yates has zero credibility,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “She was a part of the greatest political crime of the Century, and ObamaBiden knew EVERYTHING! Sally Yates leaked the General Flynn conversation? Ask her under oath.”
In phone calls with Kislyak, Flynn asked the Russian ambassador to not escalate Russia’s response to the outgoing Obama administration’s expulsion of Russian diplomats. When Moscow didn’t escalate, Obama asked the intelligence community to find out what happened, according to Yates. The call intercepts were flagged as part of the resulting search, she said.
In late 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the ambassador. He has since moved to withdraw the plea, citing government misconduct and a conflict of interest by his former counsel, who he said advised him to plead guilty. The Department of Justice has since asked a federal judge to dismiss the case after an internal audit concluded that the FBI had no basis to interview Flynn in the first place.
Yates agreed on Aug. 5 that Comey went “rogue” when he sent Strzok and special agent Joe Pientka to the White House to interview Flynn. Yates had planned to inform the White House about Flynn the same day, but discovered that Comey had sent in the agents without consulting her. She nonetheless said the agents had sufficient reason to conduct the interview.
On the day before the Jan. 5, 2017, meeting at the White House, the FBI agent working Flynn’s case had submitted paperwork to close the investigation. The agent wrote that the probe didn’t turn up any derogatory information on Flynn. Strzok intervened the same day to keep the case open, telling the agent that bureau management had gotten involved.