Questions over the US president Donald Trump administration's links with Russia intensified on Monday, as former attorney general Sally Yates told a Senate committee that she warned the White House that former national security advisor Michael Flynn could be blackmailed by Russia.
In a highly-anticipated appearance at the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ms Yates, who was acting attorney general for 10 days before being fired by Mr Trump, said she had raised concerns about Mr Flynn's links with Russia during two meetings with White House counsel Don McGahn in January and a subsequent telephone call.
“We were giving them the information so they could take action,” she said.
“We began our meeting telling him that there had been press accounts of statements from the Vice President and others that related to conduct that General Flynn had been involved in that we knew not to be the truth,” said Ms Yates. “The Vice President was knowingly making false statements to the American public, and General Flynn was compromised by the Russians.’’
On February 14th, press secretary Sean Spicer said that White House counsel briefed the President immediately after being notified by the Department of Justice. However, it was two weeks before Mr Trump fired Mr Flynn, accusing him of misleading Vice President Mike Pence.
In prepared remarks to the committee Ms Yates also stated that Russian interference in the US presidential election posed a “serious threat to all Americans”.
Ms Yates' appearance at the committee coincided with reports that president Obama warned his successor about appointing Mr Flynn to the nation's top security role during a 90-minute meeting between the two on November 10th shortly after Mr Trump's election victory. General Flynn – who was a key figure in the Trump election campaign – was fired by Mr Obama as director of national intelligence in 2014.
Throughout the hearing Ms Yates was also grilled by Republicans on her stance on the President's controversial travel ban, with several senators questioning whether Ms Yates had exceeded her powers as attorney general by declining to support Mr Trump's executive order. That decision led to the Trump administration's move to fire her, with the White House accusing her at the time of "betraying" the Department of Justice and "refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States". An Obama appointee, Ms Yates was subsequently replaced by Jeff Sessions in the role of attorney general.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas asked if it was lawful for an attorney general to question a president's executive order "because you happened to disagree with it as a policy matter," noting that the Department of Justice was supposed to represent the president.
Ms Yates replied: “In this instance all arguments have to be based on truths. We are the Department of Justice . . . not a law firm,” she said, adding that the travel ban was unlawful.
While Senator Ted Cruz argued that the President has the right to impose restrictions he deemed appropriate in the interests of national security, Ms Yates quoted a statute of the Immigration and Nationality Act: "No person should receive preference or be discriminated against in issuance of a visa because of race, nationality or place of birth."
Ms Yates’ appearance at the committee took place as a federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, heard arguments in a case against Mr Trump’s travel ban. Several individuals have brought cases against the President’s executive order temporarily barring entry to citizens from six Muslim majority countries, arguing that it is effectively a Muslim ban, citing Mr Trump’s comments on Muslims during the presidential election campaign.
The 13-member court began hearing arguments on Monday. Mr Trump’s proposed travel ban has been effectively put on hold amid several court challenges.