Pushback from Women Key to Vexing Trump Administration Efforts to Quiet Russia Scandal
When then-National Security Adviser Mike Flynn was found to have had a discussion with the Russian ambassador that he shouldn’t have had, it fell to former acting Attorney General Sally Yates to inform White House Counsel Donald McGahn of the intercepted communication. Yates was scheduled to appear before the House Intelligence Committee on March 28 when the hearing was abruptly canceled by committee chairman Devin Nunes, Republican of California, with no notice given to ranking Democrat Adam Schiff, also of California.
In recent days, Nunes has appeared before reporters as an unvarnished lackey for the Trump administration, which every day becomes more mired in revelations of questionable ties with Russian nationals—including mobsters and oligarchs—even as Congress is supposed to be investigating Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election. On March 24, without notifying members of his committee, Nunes went to the White House with intelligence he said had been disclosed only to him—that conversations between Trump campaign figures and non-campaign people who were under surveillance had been incidentally captured by intelligence agencies. Nunes claims not to be in possession of the documentation he claims to have seen. (It is not customary for intelligence about a congressional investigation to be shared, as Nunes did, with the targets of that investigation.)
But before taking his big scoop to the president, he talked to reporters about it.
Then came word, via CNN, that on March 23, Nunes had visited “the White House grounds” the day before his big non-reveal, leaving observers to wonder if the documentation of such surveillance that Nunes claims to have seen came from the White House itself, perhaps in an effort to shore up the unsubstantiated claim made by Trump in two March 4 tweets that Barack Obama had wiretapped his Trump Tower phones during the campaign. A source CNN describes as “a government official” said Nunes was seen in offices occupied by the National Security Council in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building—which sits on the White House campus—during his Thursday saunter through the grounds.
It increasingly appears that Donald Trump’s repeated expressions of admiration for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin amount to a good business decision for Trump and the constellation of privately held, limited liability and shell companies that form the Trump Organization, which is now in the hands of Trump’s oldest two sons, Donald Jr., and Eric.
Michael Flynn, you’ll recall, was fired from his position as Trump’s national security adviser after just 24 days on the job, having been revealed to have discussed the topic of U.S. sanctions against Russia with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump took office—and then purportedly lied about it to Vice President Mike Pence.
Lately, Flynn’s own business dealings have come under scrutiny, including a $30,000 honorarium he received from Putin’s Russia Today television network, and lobbying on behalf of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the extradition of a U.S.-based cleric the Turkish leader claims was behind a coup attempt in July. In his own country, Erdogan has since been rounding up dissidents of every stripe.
Given her knowledge of Flynn’s pre-inaugural schmooze with Kislyak, it’s hard not to wonder just what else Sally Yates knows about the Trump team’s dealings with other foreign figures before the inauguration, via the same sort of incidental collection that led to revelations of Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador. In other words, in the case we know about, it is believed that intelligence officials had targeted Kislyak for surveillance, and learned about his discussion with Flynn because of the electronic ears turned toward the Russian diplomat. Who else had encounters with Trump campaign and transition team members, or other Trump associates, that intelligence agencies might have been monitoring?
In the days prior to the scheduled March 28 hearing, The Washington Post reports, the White House tried to shut that thing down—or at least keep Yates from testifying about what she knows about Flynn. First, Justice Department officials sought to characterize Yates’s knowledge of the situation as prohibited from divulgence as part of attorney-client privilege, which Yates’s lawyer rejected. Then the Justice Department referred Yates’s attorney to the White House counsel, saying that Yates’s planned testimony could fly in the face of executive privilege. Yates, through her attorney, told the White House that she would not abandon her plans to testify before the committee about the Flynn matter. Next thing you knew, the hearing was canceled, and has yet to be rescheduled.
Donald Trump famously fired Yates after she instructed Justice Department attorneys not to defend Trump’s executive order on immigration. It was an act for which she knew she’d be fired, but she did it anyway in order to stake a claim for constitutional values. Sally Yates is one uppity woman, and there’s nothing this White House hates more or trusts less than an uppity woman.
Just look at the treatment received yesterday by April Ryan, White House reporter for the American Urban Radio Networks, when she asked Press Secretary Sean Spicer during a briefing for reporters to comment on how the Trump administration plans to address its image problem in the wake of the Russia controversies.
“I appreciate your agenda, but the reality is—hold on,” Spicer said, as Ryan tried to interject. “The facts are that every single person who has been briefed on the subject has come away with the same conclusion. Republicans, Democrats come—I’m sorry that disgusts you. You are shaking your head. I appreciate it, but understand this: That at some point the facts are what they are and every single person who has been briefed on the situation with respect to the situation with Russia—Republicans, Democrats, Obama appointee, career—have all come to the same conclusion. At some point, April, you're going to have to take no for an answer with respect to whether or not there was collusion.”
Later in their exchange, Spicer said to Ryan, “Please stop shaking your head again.” In other words: If you’re managing to express your objection to my characterization even as I’m running over your question with my mouth and a big microphone, you’d better stop that.
April Ryan was undaunted, but nonetheless expressed appreciation when another uppity woman, in the form of Trump nemesis Hillary Clinton, called attention to Spicer’s condescending behavior toward Ryan during a speech to the Professional Business Women of California conference in San Francisco. (Ryan, it should be noted, is also African American, making her a member of a demographic cohort that roundly rejected Donald Trump during the election.)
Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Tuesday that his committee is interested in hearing from Sally Yates. Sean Spicer unconvincingly, in a tone of indignation, said he hopes she does.
Ultimately, the fate of the republic may depend on the questions and testimony of uppity women. Much will be revealed in the way they are treated by the administration, the media, and the public.