The Trump administration sought to block former acting attorney general Sally Yates from testifying to Congress in the House investigation of links between Russian officials and Donald Trump's presidential campaign, The Washington Post has learned, a position that is likely to further anger Democrats who have accused Republicans of trying to damage the inquiry.According to letters The Post reviewed, the Justice Department notified Yates earlier this month that the administration considers a great deal of her possible testimony to be barred from discussion in a congressional hearing because the topics are covered by the presidential communication privilege.
In the early days of Donald Trump's presidency -- which is to say, just a couple of months ago -- Sally Yates was the administration's choice to serve as the acting U.S. Attorney General, though that did not last. Ten days into her tenure, Trump fired Yates after she directed the Justice Department not to defend the president's Muslim ban, which she considered unconstitutional.All of this unfolded on Jan. 30. Four days earlier, however, Yates notified the White House that the Justice Department had evidence that then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn lied about his post-election talks with Vladimir Putin's government and may be vulnerable to a Russian blackmail campaign.Yates is now eager to talk to congressional investigators about those developments. The Washington Post reports that the White House has "sought to block" that testimony.
You may have heard about a House Intelligence Committee hearing, which was scheduled for yesterday, in which Yates was prepared to testify. The committee's beleaguered chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), abruptly cancelled the hearing late last week, without notifying any of his colleagues.In case this isn't already painfully obvious, it's hard not to wonder whether Nunes, who already appears to be working with Team Trump to derail the investigation into Team Trump, scuttled the hearing at the behest of his White House allies.A White House spokesperson pushed back against the Post's reporting, calling the article "entirely false," and pointing to the specific text of the official correspondence.But that's where the story gets tricky. The House Intelligence Committee invited Yates two weeks ago to answer members' questions. Soon after, Yates' attorney sent letters to the White House and Justice Department, alerting them to her plans to testify. Specifically, in the letter to the White House's counsel's office, Yates' attorney wrote, "If I do not receive a response by Monday, March 27, at 10 am EDT, I will conclude that the White House does not assert executive privilege over these matters with respect to the hearing or other settings."On Friday, the Justice Department wrote back, saying that Yates' expected testimony is "likely covered by the presidential communications privilege," and encouraging her lawyer to "consult with the White House."Yates' attorney then advised the White House counsel of her "intention to provide information" to the Intelligence Committee during Monday's hearing, and soon after, Nunes abruptly announced that there would be no hearing.There's nothing in the correspondence that explicitly shows the White House trying to silence Yates, but the timing of the events paints an interesting picture. The White House counsel's office didn't write back to Yates' attorney, because as a practical matter, it didn't have to -- the hearing was cancelled at a convenient moment, making the problem go away.For his part, House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told the Post the panel was aware that Yates "sought permission to testify from the White House. Whether the White House's desire to avoid a public claim of executive privilege to keep her from providing the full truth on what happened contributed to the decision to cancel today's hearing, we do not know. But we would urge that the open hearing be rescheduled without delay and that Ms. Yates be permitted to testify freely and openly.''