Politics & Policy

Sally Yates: Much Ado about Nothing New

Yates testifies on Capitol Hill, May 8, 2017. (Reuters photo: Jim Bourg)
Democrats used yesterday’s subcommittee hearing to air a lot of partisan innuendo, but they couldn’t make anything substantive stick.

If ever there were an example of why a congressional committee is a terrible vehicle for investigating misconduct with alleged criminal or national-security implications, it was Monday’s Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing. The session, a probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, featured the much-anticipated testimony of Democratic diva Sally Yates, the former acting Attorney General fired for insubordination by President Trump in the early days of his administration. You’ll be shocked, I’m sure, to learn that the proceedings were heavy on politically charged innuendo and light on substance.

If you were looking for hard evidence of Trump collusion in a Russian influence operation, there was none to be found. And if you were hoping for insight into the only known crime to have been committed in this escapade — namely, the leaking of classified information to the media — the hearing chaired by Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) was a disappointment.

What we mainly heard was that the Obama administration really does not like Michael Flynn. Not exactly the late-breaking news.

President Obama fired Flynn after making him head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Flynn was a naysayer on Obama’s foreign policy, particularly with respect to the Middle East — especially Iran and radical Islam. Flynn also made enemies throughout the so-called “community” of U.S. intelligence agencies because he called out our spooks on politicizing their analyses to paper over Obama’s policy failures. How surprising that many of these officials have no use for him either.

Thus, the schadenfreude runneth over in the Obama camp, which is clearly enjoying the general’s fall from grace. And one can hardly blame them for bursting into “I told you so” mode over lapses in judgment by President Trump’s original (and short-lived) national-security adviser — e.g., taking money in his post-military security-consulting career from enterprises tied to the murderous Putin regime and the government of Turkey’s Islamist thug, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Flynn defenders will get only so far observing that the autocratic Erdogan was beloved of the Obama and Bush administrations, too, and that the haul from Flynn’s Russian speaking gigs was a bare fraction of the cool $500,000 Bill Clinton got from a Kremlin-tied investment bank shortly before his wife, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton, signed off on a government ruling that gave Russia control of one-fifth of U.S. uranium supplies. I myself have pointed out that Flynn (with co-author Michael Ledeen) wrote a bestselling book, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War against Radical Islam and Its Allies, in which he describes the Putin regime as a determined enemy bent on America’s destruction, and radical Islam as the ideology that animates the terrorist threat against our country. Given the general’s awareness of these facts, if he couldn’t perceive the unseemliness of profiting off the Russian and Turkish despots, then Democrats surely can’t be faulted for questioning his fitness, or Trump’s judgment in retaining him. Such critiques can hardly be dismissed as baseless, even if they are hypocritical, motivated by politics rather than security concerns, and grossly incomplete in the portrait they paint of Flynn’s distinguished military career.

But all that said, there’s a big difference between cupidity and treason.

Democrats would have you believe that Flynn was in Putin’s pocket, poised to act against U.S. interests. There is absolutely no evidence of this — the evidence that has been reported actually cuts against it. But they need innuendo along these lines to resuscitate the moribund “Trump colluded with Russia to steal the election” narrative, which has even less basis in fact and is of ever-diminishing interest to anyone who is not an elected Democrat, a Hollywood airhead, a community organizer, or a member of the mainstream press.

Thus Monday’s big story, courtesy of the New York Times, that President Obama “warned” Trump against hiring Flynn. Coming just ahead of Ms. Yates’s testimony, the transparent purpose of this revelation was to add to the cloud of suspicion surrounding Flynn, bolstering the sotto voce suggestion that he is a Russian spy. The Times darkly notes that, when Obama conveyed his dire warning to Trump, he was “aware of Mr. Flynn’s well-publicized trip in 2015 to Moscow and other contacts with Russia.”

Well, it is not surprising that Obama knew about the trip. The Times’s description of it as “well-publicized” is a laughable understatement. As Eli Lake reports at Bloomberg, Flynn briefed the Defense Intelligence Agency (which he headed from 2012 to 2014) before and after going to Moscow. Lake elaborates that the Obama administration renewed Flynn’s top-secret security clearance four months after the trip.

These were theatrics worthy of a kangaroo court. Democratic senators knew Yates would not answer, so they loaded their “questions” with suggestions of heinous behavior.

Flynn should certainly have disclosed the $33,750 speaking fee he got from the Russian propaganda network RT. But what Democrats and their media allies would like you to assume is that Obama warned Trump that Flynn could be an agent of the Kremlin. Of course, they don’t come out and say that. After all, there is no supporting proof; plus, you’re already supposed to believe that Trump himself is a Putin puppet, so why would Obama warn him to steer clear of a fellow comrade? Better to say Obama had concerns about Flynn, float the suggestion that they might have been over Russia, and hope the reader’s imagination will fill in the nefarious blanks.

So, did Obama really recommend that Trump ditch Flynn? I’d be stunned if he didn’t: Obama disagrees with Flynn on issue after issue, and he had good reason to believe Flynn would try to undo the Iran nuclear deal, his most cherished foreign-policy “accomplishment.” But that doesn’t mean he believed Flynn was a spy.

This conscious misimpression leads us seamlessly into the ballyhooed testimony of Sally Yates, who appeared before the subcommittee along with retired general James Clapper, the Obama administration’s national intelligence director.

Yates followed the script. An Obama holdover kept on by Trump to run the Justice Department while Jeff Sessions awaited confirmation, she purportedly developed concerns about Flynn that were so troubling she felt compelled to convey them to Don McGahn, Trump’s White House counsel. What were those concerns? She wouldn’t say; it’s classified. Was Flynn acting on Putin’s behalf? She was not gonna go there; it’s classified. Does she have evidence that Flynn or any other Trump official conspired with the Kremlin to interfere with the election? She wasn’t able to discuss that; it’s classified.

These were theatrics worthy of a kangaroo court. Democratic senators knew Yates would not answer, so they loaded their “questions” with suggestions of heinous behavior. It was a congressional hearing rather than a trial, so there was no lawyer there to defend Flynn, to point out that the interrogators were assuming facts that have not been proved. There was no judge there to instruct the interrogators that they may not ask explosive questions which (a) lacked a good faith basis in solid evidence, and (b) they knew ahead of time the witness wouldn’t answer. In other words, the point of the questions was to smear, not to elicit answers that advanced the inquiry.

What we do know, based on the illegal leaks that Democrats seem less than anxious to probe, is that Flynn, in his capacity as a Trump transition official and the soon-to-be national-security adviser, spoke with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak on the day Obama expelled Russian agents and imposed other sanctions as payback for the Kremlin’s meddling in the election. Inevitably, the topic of sanctions came up in the conversation. The FBI had a recording of the conversation because Kislyak was under surveillance, something Flynn, an old intelligence pro, should have realized. The FBI was reportedly consulting with “Obama advisers” regarding Flynn’s communications with Kislyak — an alarming indication of political meddling in the FBI’s investigative work. The Bureau told the (no doubt disappointed) “Obama advisers” that Flynn had not given the ambassador any satisfaction or commitment to address Russia’s concerns — no quid pro quo. Afterward, however, Trump officials, including soon-to-be vice president Mike Pence, publicly claimed that Flynn and Kislyak never discussed the sanctions.

It has become Washington wisdom that “Flynn lied to Pence,” matter-of-factly repeated by the press and politicians from both parties. Yet even that has not been proved. Clearly, Pence was misinformed, but it has not been established whether Flynn lied to him or gave him accurate information that he misunderstood. (Hypothetically, for example, Flynn could have said he made no commitments on the sanctions, and Pence could have mistakenly understood this to mean the topic of sanctions never came up). To be sure, it is probable that Flynn is the party responsible for the inaccuracy. But even assuming this is so, it has not been established whether (a) Flynn intentionally misled Pence (which is possible: Flynn could have realized after the fact that discussing the sanctions had been politically dumb and resolved to cover up his misstep); or (b) Flynn did a sloppy rather than dishonest job of summarizing the conversation for Pence (which is also possible: He may simply have forgotten the sanctions part of the discussion if it had been fleeting, if he had made no promises to Kislyak, if other aspects of the conversation were more important, if poor notes were kept, and/or if there was a significant lapse of time between the occurrence of the conversation and the later description of it to Pence).

In any event, Yates claims that she informed the Trump White House of her concerns about Flynn because (1) Pence and others were conveying misinformation to the American people, and (2) Flynn might be compromised and vulnerable to blackmail.

The first concern states an astonishing new standard: In addition to enforcing the law and protecting national-security, the Justice Department apparently now monitors political statements by executive officials for their accuracy. That standard certainly was not applied by the Obama Justice Department (of which Yates was a high-ranking member) to the Obama White House — see, e.g., the Obamacare sales job, the Benghazi-massacre rationalizations, the Iran-deal assurances, etc.

Nothing about the Flynn story is indicative of collusion by the Trump campaign in Russia’s election-season shenanigans.

The second concern, about blackmail, is, as I have previously argued, absurd. Yates’s dizzying theory is that Russia knew Flynn must have lied to Pence and could thereby threaten to expose Flynn if he didn’t do Russia’s bidding. Put aside the fact that there is no reason to believe Flynn, a patriotic, decorated combat veteran, would sell his country out to Russia. He is also a longtime intelligence official who was slated to be national-security adviser and thus read in on all manner of classified information. Consequently, he would have known for certain what he should always have suspected: The intelligence community possessed a recording of his conversation with Kislyak. Russia would thus have known that it could not successfully blackmail Flynn by threatening to “reveal” information that was already known to his executive-branch colleagues.

All that said, nothing about the Flynn story is indicative of collusion by the Trump campaign in Russia’s election-season shenanigans. And even if we assume the worst about Flynn, Trump fired him. Why would he have done that if there were reason to worry that Flynn, in retaliation, might spill the beans about a huge conspiracy to steal the election and run the U.S. government as a Kremlin satellite?

For all the Democrats’ heavy breathing, then, the Trump-Russia farce grows more stale by the day. Meanwhile, though an Obama official who testified Monday repeatedly told the subcommittee she could not reveal classified information in a Senate hearing for public consumption, some other Obama officials obviously did reveal classified information to the media for public consumption — disclosing, among other things, details of the very same Flynn–Kislyak conversation that Yates refused to discuss.

That disclosure is a felony. But it seems the reality of crime is of less moment than a reality-challenged political narrative.


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Colin Powell, R.I.P.

Colin Powell, R.I.P.

We had substantial disagreements but recognize that he will be remembered for a long, consequential career of service to a country that he loved.