Obama official says Trump adviser tried to ease Russia sanctions

Yates tells Congress that Flynn assured Moscow in 2016 incoming Trump administration would ‘neutralise’ Obama sanctions.

Sally Yates sworn in Senate Judiciary hearing
Sally Yates told a US Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on the FBI's counterintelligence investigation that Michael Flynn's assurances to the Russian ambassador were 'highly irregular' [Judiciary Committee Handout via Reuters]

The second-in-command Justice Department official in the Obama administration told Congress that President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser informed a Russian diplomat in 2016 that the incoming Trump administration would “essentially neutralise” US sanctions imposed on Russia for its election interference.

Sally Yates, President Barack Obama’s deputy attorney general, told a United States Senate committee on Wednesday that it was “highly irregular” for Trump adviser Michael Flynn to tell a Russian ambassador that the incoming administration hoped Russia would minimise its response.

In late December 2016, Obama expelled 35 suspected Russian spies in response to Russia’s hacks of Hillary Clinton and Democratic Party emails and exploitation of social media to damage Clinton and boost Trump.

“This was an attack on our democracy. This attack was absolutely unprecedented,” Yates told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

After the sanctions were announced at the end of December 2016, Flynn relayed messages from Trump’s team huddled with the president-elect at his Mar-a-Lago Club resort in Florida to Russian US Ambassador Sergei Kislyak urging Moscow not to react.

Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, later lied about those contacts with Kislyak in interviews with the FBI and was charged criminally by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of his probe into the Russian interference.

Michael Flynn
Michael Flynn, twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Kislyak but subsequently switched lawyers and has accused the FBI of setting him up [File: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo]

Flynn has now asked a federal judge to dismiss the criminal case against him. The dismissal request, backed by Trump’s Justice Department, is pending before a US appeals court in Washington, DC.

Yates said she was “not aware of anyone at the Department of Justice trying to keep Donald Trump from becoming president”.

President Trump said on Twitter that Yates has “zero credibility.”

Yates rejected allegations by Republicans on the Senate panel that former President Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden had deliberately targeted Flynn for prosecution.

“My memory is clear,” Yates said, describing a January 5, 2017, White House meeting on Russian interference that Republicans have focused on.

“No such thing happened,” Yates said.

“That meeting was not about an investigation at all. That would have set off alarms for me,” she said.

Sally Yates testimony US Senate Judiciary
Former US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates responds to questions from Republican Senator John Kennedy about her personal feelings towards President Trump during a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing in Washington, DC [Erin Schaff/Pool via Reuters]

Committee Republicans used Wednesday’s hearing to air complaints by Trump that the Obama-era Justice Department had used the controversial “Steele dossier” to spy on his campaign.

The private dossier on alleged links between Trump and Russia was produced for an opposition research firm during the 2016 campaign by Christopher Steele, a former head of the Russia desk at MI6, the United Kingdom’s intelligence agency.

Republican legislator repeatedly pressed Yates about faulty information in surveillance applications for Carter Page, who served as an energy adviser to the Trump campaign, according to National Public Radio.

“We have a deliberate and systematic misleading of a federal court here,” claimed Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican who is a former state prosecutor in Missouri.

Barbara McQuade,  a former federal prosecutor and law professor a the University of Michigan, commented on Twitter that Republican senators were trying to create a false narrative with their questions.

An internal review by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found there was no evidence of political bias in the FBI’s initiation of its investigation into Russia interference in the 2016 campaign which the IG found had been justified by the facts.

However, officials now say some source material used by the FBI in its applications for surveillance warrants on Page amounted to gossip and “bar talk” that has since been disavowed, although the FBI knew Russian intelligence had previously tried to recruit Page as a potential asset.

Yates agreed with Republicans that the FBI had not provided completely accurate information in its secret wiretap applications.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies