It would have been a climactic scene in any Cold War spy novel. The acting attorney general rushes across town to tell the White House legal counsel that the president’s national security adviser “could be blackmailed by the Russians.”
In this fictional universe, a wave of panic sweeps through the White House as the legal counsel with the attorney general in tow bursts into the Oval Office to warn the president. “Mr. President,” the legal counsel says ominously, “the AG believes that the Russians may be able to turn your national security adviser.”
The president looks horrified. “My God,” he says, “this is even worse than Alger Hiss or Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Mike knows all the national secrets. We’ve got to get him out of here this afternoon.”
But the Trump administration is one place where life doesn’t imitate art.
Acting Attorney General Sally Yates first warned White House counsel Donald McGahn about national security adviser Michael Flynn on Jan. 26. Yates had learned that Flynn had been lying to the administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his December conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn had denied discussing lifting sanctions against Moscow with Kislyak while Barack Obama was still president.
But as Yates made clear in her explosive Senate testimony Monday afternoon, McGahn seemed initially puzzled about her concern that Flynn was untruthful. As she put it, “One of the questions that Mr. McGahn asked me when I went over the second day was, essentially, why does it matter to DOJ if one White House official lies to another White House official.”
The drama, as recounted by Yates, ended abruptly on Jan. 30. After another meeting with McGahn, Yates learned that Trump, without her knowledge, had issued his travel ban against visitors and green card holders from seven overwhelmingly Muslim countries. When Yates refused to defend in court the ineptly crafted executive order that, in effect, was a Muslim ban, she was fired by the president.
As for Flynn, he defiantly stayed on as national security adviser until Feb. 13 — 18 days after Yates had issued her initial warning.
Every normal administration like Obama’s produces a handful of people like Sally Yates. They are little-known veteran senior civil servants who, because of a resignation or a new president, can claim for the rest of their careers that they were an “acting” member of the Cabinet.
Only by the luck of the draw did Yates get her designation as “acting attorney general” at one of the most tumultuous moments in 21st-century political history. The arrival of the Trump team in Washington — filled with arrogant self-confidence and sneering disdain for tradition or experience — meant that Yates was the nation’s chief law enforcement official during the Ten Days That Shook Washington.
Appearing Monday before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, chaired by Lindsey Graham, Yates made a compelling witness. Speaking in an unmistakable Georgia accent — the sort of regional marker not usually heard in Manhattan or Cambridge — Yates avoided commenting on matters beyond her direct knowledge. She was also meticulous about classified matters, saying at one point, “Just because I can’t answer [a question], doesn’t mean that the answer is yes.”
At a time when every White House feud is dramatized in real time by press leaks from an administration that can’t wait to denounce “fake news,” Yates’ appearance marked a rare instance that a first-hand witness to Trumpian dysfunction testified under oath.
Even though Yates did not know or speculate about what happened in the White House after she told McGahn of her concerns about Flynn, her story should be chilling even for those who are sympathetic to a Trump presidency.
It is impossible to think of a more dangerous appointment than Trump’s choice of Michael Flynn as his national security adviser. And that includes Richard Nixon’s henchmen and Oliver North, who waged a secret war out of the White House basement.
Not only did Flynn conceal that he was working on behalf of the authoritarian Turkish government during the campaign and lied to Pence about his dealings with the Russian ambassador, but he had been fired from the Obama administration for his alternate-reality insistence on “Flynn Facts” during his tenure as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. As several news organizations reported Monday, Obama had warned Trump in their first post-election meeting not to appoint Flynn to such a sensitive post.
What we do not know for certain is why Trump still named Flynn to what may be the most important job in government that does not require Senate confirmation. Or why McGahn slow-walked his response to Yates’ warning about Russian blackmail.
Loyalty above all
Loyalty is the coin of the realm in this administration and, unquestionably, trumps competence. Flynn was a fiery speaker on behalf of Trump during the campaign — and, with no apparent sense of irony, led the crowd at the Republican convention in anti-Clinton chants of “Lock her up.”
McGahn, too, was an early recruit to Trumpworld, signing on in early 2015 as the campaign’s election lawyer when few established Republicans would work for the former reality-show host. As a former attorney for the National Republican Congressional Committee, McGahn came to the White House devoid of any experience in national security matters.
The dimensions of the Russian connection will remain murky until there is a fully-staffed bipartisan congressional inquiry. But, if the Trump White House had any sense of shame, the Michael Flynn story alone would serve as a lasting and dangerous embarrassment.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.