The Trump White House on Tuesday denied it tried to prevent the former acting attorney general whom President Donald Trump fired from testifying before a House committee about Russia.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said a Washington Post article, which reported just that, was inaccurate. He said the the president would prefer that Yates, the Obama administration’s last deputy attorney general and who was acting attorney general during the Trump administration’s first days, testify.
“I hope she testifies. I look forward to it,” Spicer said. “We have no problem with her testifying.
“To suggest in any way, shape or form that we stood in the way of that is 100 percent false,” Spicer said Tuesday during a briefing that lasted only around half an hour.
The Justice Department informed Yates’ lawyer earlier this month that they viewed her possible testimony as covered by the “presidential communications privilege,” part of a larger umbrella of legal authorities of the office known as “executive privilege.”
New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice defines the communication privilege this way: “The presidential communications privilege protects from disclosure any communications that are either by the president directly or by his immediate advisors in the Office of the President to the president.”
“The [Supreme Court] grounded the privilege in the need for candor in executive branch decision-making and in the supremacy of each branch within its own assigned area of constitutional duties,” according to the Brennan Center.
Spicer, who contends the White House never claimed that or any form of executive privilege in the Yates matter, walked reporters through the White House’s version of events surrounding the testimony:
- On March 14, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes and ranking member Adam B. Schiff asked Yates and John O. Brennan, the Obama administration’s final CIA director, to testify this week.
- On March 23, Yates’ lawyer, David O’Neil, wrote to acting Assistant Attorney General Samuel Ramer, saying she would testify, but not disclose classified information nor discuss anything that is part of an ongoing criminal probe.
- On March 24, O’Neil wrote to senior White House officials to ask if the president would claim executive privilege, which could have prevented Yates from testifying on certain matters — and perhaps at all.
- O’Neil wrote in the letter that if White House officials did not reply to the letter by Monday morning, he would consider that an acknowledgement there would be no claim of executive privilege.
- According to Spicer, the White House purposely did not respond, in the spirit of O’Neill’s ask.
But Nunes canceled all hearings planned for this week on Friday, before the White House’s response period had expired.
On Tuesday morning, Nunes said he nixed the hearings because the panel wanted to hear more from FBI Director James B. Comey before bringing in additional witnesses. That came after he told reporters that “nothing was canceled.”
Nunes in recent days has come under fire, mostly from Democrats but also from a few Republican senators, for his handling of intelligence reports he viewed on the White House grounds as part of the House Intelligence panel’s probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. Schiff on Monday called for Nunes to recuse himself from that inquiry.
In a statement earlier Tuesday, Schiff said “we do not know” if “the White House’s desire to avoid a public claim of executive privilege to keep [Yates] from providing the full truth on what happened” contributed to the hearing’s cancellation.
The hearing “would also have provided the opportunity for [Yates] to testify about the events leading up to former national security adviser [Mike Flynn’s] firing, including his attempts to cover up his secret conversations with the Russian ambassador,” Schiff said in a statement. “We are aware that former AG Yates intended to speak on these matters, and sought permission to testify from the White House.”
On the evening of Jan. 30, on just his 10th day in office, Trump fired Yates after she refused to order DOJ attorneys to defend his since-blocked initial travel ban executive order. At that time, Trump said Yates, a 27-year veteran of the department with respect from across the aisle, had “betrayed” the Justice Department, even as top Democrats lodged howls of protest.
Rema Rahman contributed to this report.