It was like two different hearings in one.
Democrats quizzed former Obama administration officials on Russia, how former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn had been “compromised” and how the White House officials conducted themselves when confronted with the information.
Republicans wanted to know how the information got out in the first place.
It was striking watching the two distinct focuses on a topic — national security — that shouldn’t be so hotly partisan.
And the data bear out the different approaches.
Democrats asked 3 1/2 times more questions than Republicans on Russia, Flynn and the White House’s conduct (142 versus 40).
Republicans, meanwhile, were focused on leaks and the practice known as “unmasking,” when an intelligence official asks for an American’s name to be re-created after being swept up in incidental surveillance of a foreign target. For example, when an incoming national security adviser is speaking on the phone with an ambassador from Russia.
Republicans asked 65 questions on leaks and unmasking; Democrats — zero.
Democrats used the words “Russia(ns)” or “Flynn” 170 times; Republicans just 56. (They only said Flynn’s name eight time total, when Democrats did so 75.)
No Republican contradicted the veracity of the information brought forth by Sally Yates, who served as acting attorney general in Trump’s first month. She said she warned the White House that Flynn lied to the vice president about his conversation with the Russian ambassador that came the same day former President Obama leveled sanctions against Russian officials for Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Flynn was left in the job, with all of his clearances, for 18 days after Yates met with White House counsel Don McGahn. He was only let go after the information became public through news reports.
California Democrat Dianne Feinstein handed out a timeline of Flynn’s involvement with Trump as the hearing began. (NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben also did one back in February after Flynn left the White House.)
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin pointed out some of the things Flynn was involved with in those 18 days when he was seen as compromised and able to be blackmailed, as Yates put it.
“Flynn continued to hire key senior staff on the National Security Council,” Durbin said, “announced new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe along with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago and participated in discussions about responding to a North Korean missile launch and spoke repeatedly to the press about his communications with Russian Ambassador Kislyak.”
Below are some questions that highlight the different approaches by Republicans and Democrats at Monday’s hearing:
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island:
- Following the Comey line, the director testified a few days ago in the full committee that the FBI had interviewed Mr. Flynn a day before, or two days before, your meeting at the White House, and you’ve just testified that you had told the White House counsel that the FBI had interviewed Flynn and he’d asked — McGahn had asked, how’d he do?
- So did you take that summary with you? Do you have any document with you that described the FBI interview of General Flynn?
- Did you discuss criminal prosecution of Mr. Flynn — Gen. Flynn?
- This was the second meeting at the White House Council’s Office in his office again?
- With the same two individuals?
- On the following day?
- Were there any takeaways from the first meeting or action items that you left with?
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California:
- Ms. Yates, I’m not going to ask you anything that deserves a confidential or secure answer, but after your second in-person meeting with Mr. McGahn, you said there were four topics he wanted to discuss. Would you list those four topics?
- Were all those topics satisfied with respect to your impression after the second meeting?
- And you did make those arrangements?
- In your view, during those 18 days, did the risk that Flynn had been or could be compromised diminish at all?
- What did you think would happen, if he were, and how do you believe he would have been compromised?
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois:
- Was there anything else about the relationship of Gen. Flynn and the Russians other than his representations that he had no conversation that you warned Don McGahn about?
- So it didn’t go back to his trip to Moscow, money received and so forth?
- And at that second meeting, did Mr. McGahn say anything about whether he had taken the information you’d given him the previous day to the president?
- So there was no statement by Mr. McGahn that he had either spoken to the president about your concerns with his national security adviser or with any other members of the White House?
Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware:
- Is that your understanding of what’s just happened in France?
- And, more importantly, was there any evidence that you saw of comparable coordination between alt-right news sites and released information in the attempts to influence the 2016 American presidential election?
- Did you see any evidence to suggest that the longstanding Russian practice of spreading misinformation and fake news was being amplified by news sites in the United States, and any reason to believe that might have been coordinated or intentional?
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina:
- Does intelligence exist that can definitely answer the following question, whether there were improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials?
- Are you familiar with a dossier about Mr. Trump compiled with some guy in England?
- Did you find that to be a credible report?
- You didn’t find it credible enough to be included?
- Let me ask you this, did anybody ever make a request to unmask the conversation between the Russian ambassador and Mr. Flynn?
- If one was made, there’d be a record of it?
- OK, and I don’t mean to interrupt you, but this is important to me. How did the conversation between the Russian ambassador and Mr. Flynn make it to the Washington Post?
- Is it fair to say that if somebody did make an unmasking request, we would know who they were and we could find out from them who they shared the information with? Is that fair to say, the system would allow us to do what I just described?
- OK. Ms. Yates, the rule of law — you cannot allow people to leak classified information because they want a particular outcome, that’s not the rule of law, is that correct?
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa:
- Have either of you ever been an anonymous source in a news report about matters relating to Mr. Trump, his associates or Russia’s attempt to meddle in the election?
- Did either of you ever authorize someone else at your respective organizations to be an anonymous source in a news report about Mr. Trump or his associates?
- As far as either of you know, have any government agencies referred any of the leaks over the past several months to the Justice Department for potential criminal investigation?
- Why wasn’t — why wasn’t the Russian release of harmful information about Mr. Trump addressed in the Russia report? And was this even evaluated during the review?
- Can you submit that as an answer in writing?
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas:
- So when it comes to incidental collection on an American person, and that is unmasked at the request of some appropriate authority, can you describe, briefly, the paper trail and the series — and the approval process that is required in order to allow that to happen? That’s not a trivial matter, is it?
- Well, the fact that some appropriate authority might request and receive the unmasking of the name of the U.S. person does not then authorize the release of that information — that classified information — into the public domain, that remains a crime, does it not?
- Is it true that the Office of Legal Counsel did conclude it [the president’s travel ban] was lawful on its face and properly drafted?
- And you overruled them?
- What is your authority to overrule the Office of Legal Counsel when it comes to a legal determination?
- Well, Ms. Yates, I thought the Department of Justice had a long standing tradition of defending a presidential action in court if there are reasonable arguments in its favor, regardless whether those arguments might prove to be ultimately persuasive, which of course is up to the courts to decide and not you, correct?
- You distinguish the truth from lawful?
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas:
- Director Clapper, what would you do, at the DNI, if you discovered that an employee of yours had forwarded hundreds or even thousands of emails to a non-government individual, their spouse, on a non-government computer?
- Would that strike you as anything ordinary?
- What concerns would that raise for you?
Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana:
- Gen. Clapper, have you ever leaked information, classified or unclassified, to a member of the press?
- Classified or unclassified?
- And have you ever given information to a reporter that you didn’t want to have your name connected with, but you wanted to see it in the paper?
- Do you know anybody else at Justice who has ever leaked classified or unclassified information to the press? Ms. Yates?
- Ms. Yates, I want to start with you. You declined to support — to defend President Trump’s executive order because you thought it was unconstitutional. Is that correct?
- And you believe there was no — you believe that no reasonable argument could be made in its defense, is that correct?
- Did you believe, then, that there were reasonable arguments that could be made in its defense?
- But that was a political decision, was it not?
- So you believe it’s unconstitutional?
- I don’t mean to wax too metaphysical here, but at what point does an act of Congress or an executive order become unconstitutional?
- But at what point does a statute or an executive order become unconstitutional?
- Tell you what you I’m getting at, and I don’t mean you any disrespect, who appointed you to the United States Supreme Court?