White House Says It Didn't Interfere, But Will Russia Hearings Ever Get Going?

Originally published on March 28, 2017 4:09 pm

Updated at 2:55 p.m. ET with additional reporting

The wonkiest soap opera in Washington served up yet more of its trademark plot twists on Tuesday as the House Intelligence Committee's investigation into Russia detoured even further into partisan bickering.

The upshot of the day's back-and-forth was this: Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, a holdover from the previous administration whom President Trump fired on Jan. 31, is not barred by the White House from testifying in open hearings in Congress.

When — or whether — Yates actually does appear is another matter.

She was supposed to have been on a panel Tuesday, along with other former national security leaders who served under President Obama. But that hearing, and then another closed session that took its place, were both canceled last week.

The House Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, Adam Schiff, charged on Tuesday that the White House had interfered behind the scenes to stop Yates from appearing. Administration officials were nervous, Schiff said in an interview with NPR journalists, about what Yates might reveal about the FBI and Justice Department's investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn — and how President Trump and his team responded.

Yates met with White House officials shortly after Trump's inauguration to tell them Flynn was under FBI investigation and that he hadn't told the truth about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Not only that but the Russians' knowledge about what Flynn had said left him open to blackmail, the FBI warned.

At the same moments that Schiff was making that connection in a visit to NPR headquarters, another story appeared from The Washington Post: The White House might consider Yates' comments from her time as acting attorney general to be covered by executive privilege. The Post cited letters from Yates' attorneys to the Justice Department.

Almost as soon as that story appeared, the White House denied it. Spokesman Sean Spicer called it "entirely false." Later, in a briefing with reporters, he was given a chance to clarify more broadly — so executive privilege would not be an issue for Yates?

"That's correct," Spicer said.

And had the White House put any pressure on House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes to cancel the hearing at which Yates was scheduled to appear?

"No," Spicer said.

Nunes' independence, however, has been called into question by Schiff and some other members of Congress following the last big cliffhanger in this melodrama.

Last week, Nunes made a secret visit to the White House to meet a person he called a confidential source — a visit that Nunes and Spicer say was unknown to Trump and his aides. During his trip, Nunes said, he viewed documents that show Trump and his transition team were swept up in U.S. surveillance of foreign targets after the election. Nunes does not have those documents, he said, nor has he shared them with any of the Republicans or Democrats on the committee.

The morning after Nunes' visit, he convened a press conference at the Capitol to tell reporters he had gotten information that partly verified Trump's earlier claim that Obama had, if not "wiretapped him," conducted some kind of surveillance. Nunes then traveled to the White House because, he said, he needed to brief Trump on what he had learned, and then he talked with reporters again before returning to the Capitol to meet with Schiff.

That has prompted Schiff to call for Nunes to recuse himself from the Intelligence Committee's investigation into last year's meddling by Russia in the presidential election. Nunes said Tuesday he would not. Schiff told NPR journalists that the situation was not "sustainable," but if he and Democrats were to walk away from the process, the chamber's only Russia investigation would very likely fold.

Schiff and a few key Republicans, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, want some kind of independent process to look into the Russia story — a select committee, or a special commission like that created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. House and Senate leaders, however, are unlikely to agree, and Trump would not sign legislation to create such a commission.

So the House Intelligence Committee saga rolls on, at least in name only. The panel has no public hearings on its calendar, but Schiff told NPR on Tuesday that Republican and Democratic staffers are continuing to review documents and assemble lists of potential witnesses. A number of Trump campaign aides, including Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who serves as a top adviser inside the White House, have said they would "volunteer" to talk with congressional investigators.

Meanwhile, the next story arc is expected to get underway later this week when the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee step into the center ring. Republican Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina and Democratic Vice Chairman Mark Warner of Virginia are scheduled to brief reporters on Wednesday, then have their first hearing on Thursday.

Our original post, from 12:26 p.m. ET

A key House Democrat on Tuesday blamed the White House for preventing a former top Justice Department leader from testifying in public about the Trump campaign's potential ties to Russian election meddling.

Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration who was fired by President Trump on Jan. 31, reportedly notified the White House ahead of an appearance that was scheduled for an open hearing before the House Intelligence Committee this week. Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, the committee chairman, then canceled that hearing and another closed session that was supposed to have taken its place.

The top Democrat on the panel, California Rep. Adam Schiff, told NPR journalists on Tuesday that he believes the White House's worries about what Yates might say led administration leaders to tell the Justice Department not to authorize Yates' testimony.

"Sally Yates had a big role to play in why this hearing was canceled," Schiff said. She could have discussed the details about what the FBI and Justice Department knew about former national security adviser Michael Flynn's talks with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Schiff said.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all if there was a vigorous pushback on having her testify, among other things, about how long did [Trump] know Flynn had lied before he was willing to do anything about it?"

Separately, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the Trump administration told Yates that what she might have said publicly violated the executive branch's privilege about internal communications.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer disputes the Post report. In a statement Tuesday, he said: "The Washington Post story is entirely false. The White House has taken no action to prevent Sally Yates from testifying and the Department of Justice specifically told her that it would not stop her and to suggest otherwise is completely irresponsible."

Yates notified the White House shortly after Trump was inaugurated that Flynn was the target of an FBI investigation and may have been subject to Russian blackmail because he hadn't told the truth about his discussions with Kislyak. Trump fired her over a separate issue — Yates told the Justice Department's attorneys not to defend in court Trump's order restricting travel from some Muslim-majority countries.

Yates may still appear before Nunes and Schiff's committee, Schiff said on Tuesday, but no hearings are on the calendar and the process is still in disarray after a strange back-and-forth last week.

Nunes revealed that he had seen secret documents that suggested Trump and his aides had been swept up in U.S. surveillance of foreign targets. He declined to share the documents with his fellow committee members — even Republicans — and it later emerged he didn't even have them in his possession.

Nunes went to the White House to view them late one night, then convened a press conference the next morning and returned to the White House because he said he needed to brief Trump about what he had learned.

That kerfuffle, along with Nunes' decision to cancel this week's hearings, led Schiff to call for Nunes to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Nunes said on Tuesday he would not. So the inquiry technically continues to go forward, but now with partisan overtones.

Schiff and some Republicans, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, want a special process to investigate Russia's election meddling, either a select committee within the Congress or something like the 9/11 Commission that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks. But Republican leaders in the House and Senate appear unenthusiastic about anything like that and Trump would not sign any legislation that created a nuisance for himself.

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