Former acting US attorney general Sally Yates said on Monday she warned the White House in January that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had been compromised and could have been vulnerable to blackmail by Russia.
Yates testified at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing that focused primarily on Flynn. The hearing did not shed much light on other aspects of investigations of allegations that Russia meddled in the 2016 US election and whether there was collusion between President Donald Trump's campaign and Moscow.
Yates told the hearing she had been concerned that "the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians."
TRT World's Matthew Symington reports.
Yates warned Trump before he sacked her
Making her first public statements about the issue, Yates said she feared Moscow could try to blackmail Flynn because it knew he had not been truthful about conversations he had with Ambassador Sergei Kislyak about US sanctions on Russia.
"Logic would tell you that you don't want the national security adviser to be in a position where the Russians have leverage over him," she said.
She told White House counsel Don McGahn on January 26, less than a week into Trump's presidency, that Flynn had not been telling the truth about his contacts with Russia's ambassador to Washington.
Yates said that in her meetings, McGahn "demonstrated that he understood this was serious... If nothing was done, certainly that would be concerning."
She repeatedly declined to discuss details of the investigation in a public forum.
Former director of national intelligence James Clapper, who also testified, said he stood by past assertions that he had not seen evidence of such collusion but also declined to comment on classified matters.
During that section of the hearing, Clapper described as accurate a report in the Guardian newspaper that British intelligence officials became aware in late 2015 about suspicious interactions between Trump advisers and Russian agents, and that the information was passed on to US intelligence agencies.
"Yes, it is (accurate), and it's also quite sensitive," Clapper said.
Obama warned Trump about hiring Flynn
Obama had warned Trump, then president-elect, not to give the post of national security adviser in his administration to Flynn just after the Republican's surprise victory in the November 8 election, a former Obama aide said.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Obama had communicated concerns about Flynn.
It "shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, given that General Flynn had worked for President Obama, was an outspoken critic of President Obama's shortcomings," Spicer said.
Flynn, a retired general once seen as a potential Trump vice president, has emerged as a central figure in the Russian probes.
Trump responds on Twitter
After Monday's hearing, Trump took to Twitter to bash the media and deny any collusion.
Director Clapper reiterated what everybody, including the fake media already knows- there is "no evidence" of collusion w/ Russia and Trump.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 8, 2017
The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 8, 2017
Sally Yates made the fake media extremely unhappy today --- she said nothing but old news!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 8, 2017
FBI Director James Comey testified in the House on March 20 that the agency was investigating potential links between Trump associates and Moscow's attempts to tilt the US presidential election.
Congressional committees began investigating after US intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered hacking of Democratic political groups to try to sway the election toward Trump.
The main investigations are being conducted by congressional Intelligence Committees, although Democrats have clamoured for a special prosecutor or independent committee. They argue that congressional committees are too partisan to conduct credible probes.
Trump also took to Twitter before the hearing to insinuate that Yates had leaked information on Flynn to the media.
Yates and Clapper both swore under oath that they had never leaked classified information.
Questioning on Monday often broke along party lines.
Some Republicans veered away from Russia to focus on issues such as whether the Obama administration had improperly revealed the names of Trump associates contained in surveillance records.
Senator John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, was one of a handful who grilled Yates about her objections to Trump's travel ban.
Yates briefly led the US Justice Department until Trump fired her on January 30 for declining to defend his travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries.
Yates was a holdover from the administration of President Barack Obama.