The White House on Tuesday dismissed questions about why President Donald Trump waited 18 days to fire national security adviser Michael Flynn after learning Flynn lied about contacts with the Russian ambassador, saying the person who delivered that message — then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates — was considered a "political opponent" of the president.
Yates, who was named by Trump to fill the attorney general job while the new administration awaited confirmation of Jeff Sessions, was "appointed by the Obama administration and ... a strong supporter of [Hillary] Clinton," Trump's opponent in the presidential election, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters.
Asked how he knew that, Spicer said "it was widely rumored" that Yates would "play a role in the Justice Department" if Clinton had won.
He said Trump "made, ultimately, the right decision" to fire Flynn in mid-February after a thorough review. The decision came three days after the information about Flynn's Russia contacts became public.
The Flynn case re-emerged to dog the administration on Monday, when Yates testified to Congress that she met with White House counsel Donald McGahn on Jan. 26 and told him that Flynn was compromised and open to possible Russian blackmail. The White House has said that McGahn immediately informed Trump. At McGahn's request, Yates returned on Jan. 27 for further discussion.
But for the next 18 days, Flynn participated in highly classified meetings and activities in the White House, including Trump meetings and numerous telephone calls with foreign leaders, including a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Spicer's description of the McGahn meetings, and explanation for the delay, diverged at several key points from that of Yates and other former senior Justice Department officials. While they agreed that McGahn, in his second meeting with Yates - on a Friday - requested transcripts and other evidence of Flynn's conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Spicer said the information was not made available until a week later. Officials said McGahn viewed the material at the Justice Department.
In her testimony, Yates said that she had called McGahn the Monday after they met to tell him the material was ready to review. She said she did not know what happened after that, because Trump fired her that day, Jan. 30, after she said his executive order banning Muslim immigrants was unlawful and instructed Justice employees not to implement it.
Spicer suggested that that action proved that Yates was "not exactly someone that was excited about President Trump taking office or his agenda."
Yates, whose Justice career spanned 27 years, had held leadership positions in Democratic and Republican administrations. She was first hired as an assistant U.S. attorney in Atlanta by a Republican, and her case as a public corruption prosecutor there was against a Democrat, Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell. Nominated as deputy attorney general in 2015, she was introduced at her confirmation hearing by Sen. Johnny Isakson, a conservative Georgia Republican, and was overwhelmingly confirmed in a bipartisan vote.
"The only reason she was acting attorney general was because Donald Trump" appointed her, said Matthew Axelrod, Yates' former principal deputy. "His transition team asked her to stay on."
The Flynn-Kislyak conversations occurred during Trump's transition in late December, when the Obama administration announced sanctions and expulsions of Russian diplomats for Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 election. In a telephone conversation shortly before the announcement - monitored by U.S. intelligence as part of regular surveillance of Kislyak - Flynn discussed the measures and suggested the possibility of sanctions relief once Trump was president.
Putin, to the surprise of many, announced that Russia would not retaliate.
On Feb. 9, when The Washington Post reported that Flynn and Kislyak had spoken, Spicer denied that sanctions were discussed, saying the call had centered only on "logistics" of a future Putin-Trump call. When Vice President Mike Pence asked Flynn for details, Flynn assured him there had been no sanctions conversation - an assurance that Pence repeated on national television.
It was that television appearance that led Yates to request an urgent meeting with McGahn, informing him that there were transcripts of the Flynn conversations. The Russians knew Flynn had lied to the vice president, Yates said, leaving him in a compromised position.
On Feb. 13, The Post reported the Yates intervention with McGahn. Later that day, Trump fired Flynn.