Lawyer for Sally Yates Says Administration Moved to Squelch Her Testimony

WASHINGTON (AP) -
Sally Yates, White House, Russia, Sean Spicer, Spicer
White House press secretary Sean Spicer holds up a document concerning a Washington Post story on Sally Yates as he talks to the media during the daily press briefing at the White House on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

A lawyer for former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote in letters last week that the Trump administration was trying to limit her testimony at congressional hearings focused on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The hearing was later canceled by the House intelligence committee chairman.

In the letters, attorney David O’Neil said he understood the Justice Department was invoking “further constraints” on testimony Yates could provide at a committee hearing that had been scheduled for Tuesday. He said the department’s position was that all actions she took as deputy attorney general were “client confidences” that could not be disclosed without written approval.

“We believe that the Department’s position in this regard is overbroad, incorrect, and inconsistent with the Department’s historical approach to the congressional testimony of current and former senior officials,” O’Neil wrote in a March 23 letter to Justice Department official Samuel Ramer.

The lawyer said Yates still intended to testify and would not disclose any classified information. The requirement that she not discuss even non-classified material “is particularly untenable given that multiple senior administration officials have publicly described the same events,” he said.

House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes announced he was canceling the meeting on March 24, one of several moves that have sparked outrage from Democrats on the committee. The typically bipartisan panel has been torn by disputes over Nunes’ ties to President Donald Trump’s campaign and questions about whether he can lead a probe independent of White House influence.

On Tuesday, Nunes rebuffed calls to step aside from the investigation.

“It’s the same thing as always around this place — a lot of politics, people get heated, but I’m not going to involve myself with that,” he said.

House Speaker Paul Ryan continued to express confidence in Nunes Tuesday, saying there is no need for the chairman to resign.

The Washington Post first reported on the letters from Yates’ attorney. The missives were posted online and a person familiar with the situation confirmed them as authentic to The Associated Press. The person discussed the correspondence on condition of anonymity.

The White House called the Post story “entirely false” and said the administration had not taken any steps to block Yates from testifying at the hearing at which other Obama administration officials were also scheduled to testify.

O’Neil declined to comment Tuesday, and a Justice Department spokeswoman did not return a message seeking comment.

Yates, who was fired in January as acting attorney general after she refused to defend the Trump administration travel ban, was expected to be questioned about her role in the firing of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Yates alerted the White House in January that Flynn had misled the White House about whether he had discussed sanctions in a December phone call with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Flynn was not ousted from the White House until the discrepancies were made public.

The hearing would have been another public airing of the infighting within the committee. Democrats on Monday called on Nunes to recuse himself from the investigation after he acknowledged he went to the White House complex to review intelligence reports and meet a secret source. Shortly afterward, Nunes announced that Trump associates’ communications had been caught up in “incidental” surveillance, a revelation President Trump used to defend his unproven claim that his predecessor tapped the phones at Trump Tower.

The Republican congressman’s disclosure prompted the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, as well as the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, to call on Nunes to recuse himself from the committee’s Russia probe.