FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump (L-R), joined by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, senior advisor Steve Bannon,...

Yates testimony creates a new headache for Trump’s White House

The Rachel Maddow Show, 5/8/17, 8:59 PM ET

Cracks deepen in White House Flynn story with new Senate…

Rachel Maddow reports on what was learned from testimony by former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee.
Donald Trump, increasingly scared of the Russia scandal, did his best last night to downplay the significance of Sally Yates’ testimony to a Senate committee yesterday. That’s understandable at a certain level – if I were in his shoes, I’d probably want the public to look past the revelations, too – but the latest revelations should not be ignored.
Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified Monday that she told the White House that then-National Security Adviser Mike Flynn could be “blackmailed by the Russians,” because he misled the vice president about his “problematic” conduct.

“We were concerned that the American people had been misled about the underlying conduct and what General Flynn had done,” Yates told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.
That reference to “the underlying conduct” is frustratingly vague, but of critical importance. Much of the focus in recent months has been on Mike Flynn lying about his communications with Russia, but Yates took this a step further: Flynn’s false claims were problematic, but so is the conduct he was lying about.

We don’t know what that conduct is – the information is classified – but it raises the seriousness of the controversy.

Indeed, Yates’ explanation painted a dramatic picture. In her capacity as acting Attorney General, she had two in-person meetings with White House officials, warning them directly about Flynn, his conduct, and his deceptions related to Russia. The president’s National Security Advisor, Yates told Team Trump in January, had been compromised.

“To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians,” Yates testified. “Logic would tell you that you don’t want the national security adviser to be in a position where the Russians have leverage over him.”

And presented with that information, Donald Trump and his team did nothing. Flynn stayed at his post; he continued to have access to highly sensitive information; and he even sat in on a conversation between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It was 18 days after Yates’ direct warning to the White House that Trump removed Flynn from his post – and even then, the Republican president argued that Flynn, whom he’d just fired, had done nothing wrong. By all appearances, Flynn would likely still be the NSA if the Washington Post hadn’t uncovered in February the communications with Russia that he’d lied about.

Why in the world did Trump wait 18 days? Yates doesn’t know, and at least for now, it’s a question the White House doesn’t want to answer.

Yates was prepared to push the matter further with Team Trump, but the president fired her after she said his Muslim ban would be found unconstitutional in the courts – an assessment that was later proven correct.

We’re left with circumstances that sound like the plot of a bizarre political novel: the president’s National Security Advisor was compromised by a foreign adversary that had helped put the president in office, and when the Justice Department alerted the White House to the problem, the president and his team did nothing for weeks, choosing instead to continue to provide him access to some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets.

In fact, there’s ample evidence top members of Team Trump lied when discussing what they knew about Flynn’s Russia contacts.

The Rachel Maddow Show, 5/8/17, 9:42 PM ET

Yates message to White House 'extraordinary'

Matthew Axelrod, who served as principal deputy to former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, talks with Rachel Maddow about Yates’ integrity and her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee.
And that’s just what we know for sure right now. The story may yet get even more serious. In fact, it’ll be especially interesting to know whether Flynn had chatted with his boss – Donald Trump – about his communications with Russia.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank added this morning, “Where there is smoke there is not necessarily fire. But there is so much smoke from the Trump-Russia probe that you can’t get near it without a respirator. Monday’s hearing further pumped the bellows.”

Postscript: Nearly all of the Senate Republicans who participated in yesterday’s hearing were wholly uninterested in the topic at hand, choosing instead to stick to Trump’s script and talk about unrelated issues. At one point, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper tried to remind the committee’s members, “I understand how critical leaks are and unmasking and all these ancillary issues. But to me, the transcendent issue here is the Russian interference in our election process, and what that means to the erosion of the fundamental fabric of our democracy. And that to me is a huge deal. And they’re going to continue to do it. And why not? It proved successful.”

If only GOP members of Congress found that compelling, we might have more answers to the questions raised by this scandal.

Donald Trump, Russia, Scandals and White House

Yates testimony creates a new headache for Trump's White House