Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the Senate hearing on Russia arrived before it even began: Had Donald Trump taken President Obama’s advice back in November, and chosen anyone but Michael Flynn to be his national security advisor, there would have far fewer Americans glued to C-SPAN on Monday.
But there were plenty of other intriguing moments that unfolded once the cameras were turned on, too.
Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, for instance, filled in quite a few blanks with regards to how Flynn, a retired three-star general, became unemployed less than a month into his White House job. James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, revealed just how little he really knows about the Russia investigation. And Senator Ted Cruz showed us that someone who’s argued nine cases before the Supreme Court can still get owned in a televised legal debate.
If you weren’t glued to your monitor for all three hours of testimony (and no one’s blaming you) here are few key moments you might’ve missed:
Yates’s warning to the White House
Thanks to a few timely leaks back in February, it was well established that Yates had warned the White House about Flynn in the days before she was fired. The exact details of those exchanges have remained a bit fuzzy, however. Yates obliged the Senate committee on Monday by offering an exact timeline of her multiple meetings with the White House counsel’s office before she was terminated from the DOJ.
On Wednesday, January 25, Yates received a report detailing the FBI’s interview of Flynn concerning his December phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. During the interview, Flynn denied discussing US sanctions against Russia, but added that he couldn’t recall every moment of the conversation.
The next day, Yates called White House counsel Donald McGahn and told him that she needed to discuss “a very sensitive matter.” She then travelled McGahn’s White House office and informed him that Flynn’s story was contradicted by information obtained by the FBI. Flynn had, in fact, discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador, she said. This was problematic because, on multiple occasions, Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials had publicly claimed the opposite while relying on Flynn’s version of events.
This is the first reason Yates cited for why she was informing the McGahn about Flynn’s apparent dishonesty.
The second reason, she said, was that the Kremlin was fully aware of Flynn’s predicament. Kislyak had undoubtedly informed Moscow that sanctions had been discussed, and therefore the Russians knew that the Trump administration had misrepresented the substance of those conversations to the press. The president’s top security advisor was vulnerable to blackmail—an issue that ultimately convinced Yates of the White House’s need-to-know.
On January 27, Yates met with McGahn for a second time. According to Yates, one question McGahn asked was: “Why does it matter to DOJ if one White House official lies to another?” McGahn was allegedly hesitant to take action against Flynn, citing the FBI’s ongoing investigation. To alleviate his concerns, Yates says she told McGahn: “It wouldn’t really be fair of us to tell you this and then expect you to sit on your hands.”
McGahn also requested access to the FBI’s “underlying evidence” of Flynn’s misconduct, Yates said. But when she reached out “first thing” that Monday to provide McGahn with access to the files, she never received a response. By the end of the day, she was fired for ordering the Justice Department not to defend Trump’s Muslim ban. (As acting attorney general, she was unconvinced that Trump’s order was constitutional, concerns later reflected in the decision of federal judges across the country.)
Obama warned Trump against hiring Flynn
President Obama personally warned Trump against hiring Flynn during a 90-minute conversation in the Oval Office just two days after the election, NBC News reported ahead of Monday’s hearing. Among other issues, Obama reportedly cited Flynn’s “mismanagement and temperament issues” while head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
Flynn’s leadership style has been described by his former DIA colleagues as “disruptive” and “chaotic.” His radical views on Islam drew particular concern.
The leaked emails of former Secretary of State Colin Powell—authenticated by his own staff—provide multiple reasons for why Flynn was “canned” by Obama from the DIA three years ago: Flynn was “abusive” with his staff, displayed poor management skills, and often worked against the administration’s policies, wrote Powell, who further characterizing Flynn as “right-wing nutty,” a snub seemingly confirmed by Flynn’s penchant for endorsing bizarre conspiracy theories. Six days before the 2016 election, for instance, Flynn tweeted that a new batch of Hillary Clinton emails revealed “Money Laundering” and “Sex Crimes [with] Children.” (They did not.)
Ahead of the hearing on Monday, Trump tweeted that “General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama administration, but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that.” This remark seems particularly disingenuous given that we now know Obama delivered a warning about Flynn in person.
Also revealed on Monday outside the hearing: Flynn never informed the DIA that he was paid nearly $34,000 by RT News, the Russia state media outlet. According to NBC News, the Pentagon is currently investigating whether Flynn’s failure to disclose violates a constitutional prohibition on retired generals accepting foreign payments.
Ted Cruz puts foot in mouth
If you tuned out after the first hour of testimony, you probably missed Ted Cruz getting owned by Yates. Very unfortunate.
Courtesy of USA Today, here’s the footage in all its glory:
As even his critics are not ashamed to admit, Cruz is a skilled litigator. The New Yorker once labeled him—hilariously, in retrospect—“the far right’s most formidable advocate.” (To be fair, no one could have foreseen Cruz bested by a candidate calling him “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” and implicating his father in the JFK assassination.) What’s more, the nine cases Cruz argued before the U.S. Supreme Court are surely enough to establish his debate bona fides.
Nevertheless, Cruz’s attempt to rattle Yates with a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) failed spectacularly, drawing an audible reaction from the gallery. Quoting from the law, Cruz cited the president’s authority to suspend immigration into the US of “any alien or class of alien” that the president finds “detrimental to the interest of the United States.”
Yates calmly fired back, citing the same law, which also says that “no person shall receive any preference or priority or be discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of the person’s race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” She further clarified that her reason for opposing Trump’s travel ban was not that it violated the INA, but the US Constitution, which supersedes the authority of any US law, including the INA.
The FBI kept Clapper in the dark
Earlier this year, Clapper delighted Trump supporters when he said on NBC’s Meet The Press that he had seen “no evidence of such collusion” between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. What few people took into account before Monday’s hearing was just how little Clapper knew about about the FBI’s investigation—which is next to nothing, apparently.
Clapper testified on Monday that he was unaware of the investigation until after FBI Director James Comey disclosed its existence on March 20, weeks after the Clapper’s NBC interview. Here’s the full quote from Clapper, which he gave during his opening remarks:
During my tenure as DNI, it was my practice to defer to the FBI director, both Director Mueller and then subsequently Director Comey, on whether, when and to what extent they would inform me about such investigations. This stems from the unique position of the FBI, which straddles both intelligence and law enforcement. And as a consequence, I was not aware of the counterintelligence investigation Director Comey first referred to during his testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee for Intelligence on the 20th of March, and that comports with my public statements.
And yet another tweet from the president about the hearing seemed entirely divorced from reality:
Following the hearing, Senator Ted Lieu of California tweeted that Clapper’s naiveté “suggests some Trump folks should be very scared right now,” an assertion echoed by national security reporter Barton Gellman. Because the FBI conducts both criminal and national security investigations, Gellman suggests, the fact that Clapper was kept in the dark implies the FBI investigation may be focused on uncovering a domestic crime.
The FBI’s investigation trudges forward silently with much of its progress (or lack thereof) taking place behind closed doors. The Senate investigation, led by Senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner, has reportedly devolved into a “standoff” between Democrats who want to issue subpoenas and Republicans who wished they’d rather not. The House Intelligence Committee is reportedly picking up some steam (in closed sessions) following the recusal of chairman Devin Nunes, a Trump campaign fundraiser and transition team member.