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Bid to silence ex-AG cited

Letters: On Russia, got Trump flak by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette staff from wire reports | March 29, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.
Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on Tuesday refused to step aside from his panel’s investigation on Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election.

WASHINGTON -- A lawyer for former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote in letters last week that President Donald Trump's administration was trying to limit her testimony at congressional hearings focused on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The hearing was later canceled by the House Intelligence Committee chairman.

Photo by The New York Times/Zach Gibson
Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates is shown in this 2016 file photo.

In the letters, attorney David O'Neil said he understood the Justice Department was invoking "further constraints" on testimony Yates could provide at a committee hearing that had been scheduled for Tuesday. He said the department's position was that all actions she took as deputy attorney general were "client confidences" that could not be disclosed without written approval.

"We believe that the Department's position in this regard is overbroad, incorrect, and inconsistent with the Department's historical approach to the congressional testimony of current and former senior officials," O'Neil wrote in a March 23 letter to Justice Department official Samuel Ramer.

The White House said Tuesday that it did not interfere with Yates' plans to testify.

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"The Department of Justice specifically told her that it would not stop her and to suggest otherwise is completely irresponsible," it said in a statement.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer later added, "We have no problem with her testifying, plain and simple."

Yates' lawyer said she still intended to testify and would not disclose any classified information. A requirement that she not discuss even nonclassified material "is particularly untenable given that multiple senior administration officials have publicly described the same events," O'Neil said.

House committee Chairman Devin Nunes announced Friday that he was canceling the meeting, days after the committee's first hearing in which FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the bureau was investigating President Donald Trump's associates' ties to Russia. Canceling the hearing was one of several moves that have sparked criticism from Democrats on the committee. The typically bipartisan panel has been torn by disputes over Nunes' ties to Trump's campaign and questions about whether he can lead a probe independent of White House influence.

On Tuesday, Nunes rebuffed calls to step aside from the investigation.

"It's the same thing as always around this place -- a lot of politics, people get heated, but I'm not going to involve myself with that," he said.

Nunes declined to say if the White House had asked him to cancel the hearing.

Reporters also asked Nunes if the Trump administration sought to prevent Yates from testifying, to which he replied: "Look, you guys are just speculating. I'm sorry, whenever there's time we'll do a press conference."

House Speaker Paul Ryan continued to express confidence in Nunes on Tuesday, saying there is no need for the chairman to resign.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said the panel was aware that Yates "sought permission to testify from the White House. Whether the White House's desire to avoid a public claim of executive privilege to keep her from providing the full truth on what happened contributed to the decision to cancel today's hearing, we do not know. But we would urge that the open hearing be rescheduled without delay and that Ms. Yates be permitted to testify freely and openly."

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee -- which is also investigating the Russia ties -- said White House meddling in Congress' Russia investigations is not helping to "remove the cloud that increasingly is getting darker over the administration."

The Washington Post first reported on the letters from Yates' attorney. The missives were posted online and a person familiar with the situation confirmed them as authentic. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the correspondence.

The White House called the Post story "entirely false" and said the administration had not taken any steps to block Yates from testifying at the hearing at which other officials from President Barack Obama's administration were scheduled to testify.

O'Neil declined to comment Tuesday, and a Justice Department spokesman did not return a message seeking comment.

Yates, who was fired in January as acting attorney general after she refused to defend the Trump administration travel ban, was expected to be questioned about her role in the firing of Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Yates alerted the White House in January that Flynn had misled the White House about whether he had discussed sanctions in a December phone call with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Flynn was not ousted from the White House until the discrepancies were made public.

White House whisperer

The hearing would have been another public airing of the infighting within the committee. Democrats on Monday called on Nunes to recuse himself from the investigation after he acknowledged he went to the White House complex to review intelligence reports and meet a secret source.

Shortly afterward, Nunes announced that Trump associates' communications had been were caught up in "incidental" surveillance, a revelation Trump used to defend his unproven claim that his predecessor tapped the phones at Trump Tower.

The Republican congressman's disclosure prompted the top Democrat on the committee, Schiff, as well as the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, to call on Nunes to recuse himself from the committee's Russia probe.

Schiff said Nunes' connections to the White House have raised insurmountable public doubts about whether the committee can credibly investigate the president's campaign associates.

"I believe the public cannot have the necessary confidence that matters involving the president's campaign or transition team can be objectively investigated or overseen by the chairman," Schiff said in a statement Monday.

But Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a member of the committee, said Tuesday that Nunes should step down "in the interest of our integrity." She said his actions raise questions about whether the panel's investigation can be unbiased and independent.

"If you become a White House whisperer, you are not independent," she said on CNN.

Nunes argues he had to review classified, executive branch documents from a secure facility at the White House because the reports had not been provided to Congress and could not be transported to the secure facilities used by the House intelligence committee. It is very unusual for a committee chairman and ranking member not to coordinate meetings related to an investigation.

Nunes would not name the source of the information, nor would he disclose who invited him on the White House grounds for the meeting. He described the source as an intelligence official, not a White House official. In an interview on CNN, he suggested the president's aides were unaware of the meeting.

An act of war

Separately, former Vice President Dick Cheney criticized Russia's alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election, calling it a hostile act and accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of making a serious attempt to interfere in the 2016 election and other democratic processes in the U.S.

"In some quarters, that would be considered an act of war," Cheney said in a speech Monday at a conference in New Delhi.

Cheney said the Cold War was long over but Putin is on a course to re-establish Russian power following the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

"Putin has aspirations of trying to correct what he sees as a disaster. He has designs on the Baltics. He wanted Crimea and he took it. And he is trying to undermine NATO," Cheney said.

Russian cyberinterference is "the kind of conduct and activity that we'll see going forward," he said.

But he also warned that Russia should not "underestimate the weight that we as Americans assign at Russia's attempts to interfere in our democratic processes."

Among the other threats faced by the United States, Cheney listed an aggressive China, North Korea, Iran and the terror threat posed by the Islamic State group.

He described North Korea as the "most dangerous part of the world with an unpredictable head of government" who is developing nuclear warheads and missiles to add to his stockpile.

Cheney said these threats come at a time when the U.S. military is at a "significantly diminished level" following eight years of budget cuts under the Obama administration.

The U.S. budget debate in the coming weeks will focus on how to allocate more funds to rebuild the military and restore the relationships that the United States had with its allies and adversaries in the past, he said.

Information for this article was contributed by Eileen Sullivan, Eric Tucker, Stephen Ohlemacher, Vivian Salama, Jill Colvin and staff members of The Associated Press and by Devlin Barrett, Adam Entous and Karoun Demirjian of The Washington Post.

A Section on 03/29/2017

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