Opinion writer

FBI Director James Comey. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

FBI Director James B. Comey’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday underscored his status as a political Rorschach test, trusted by neither side for entirely different reasons. For Democrats, his emotional plea that “concealment” of new facts (that turned out to be insignificant) regarding the Hillary Clinton email server investigation would have been worse than disclosure, in the form of his Oct. 28 letter wading into the election, was met with incredulity and anger. Why then was “concealment” of the Russia probe preferable to telling the public that one campaign was under investigation for potential collaboration with an enemy of the United States? However, when it comes to the Russia investigation, Democrats were delighted that he reaffirmed Russia as the country responsible for hacking and cyber-meddling in our election and that the investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible cooperation with Russian officials goes on.

For Republicans, Comey’s decision in late October 2016 was the act of a “by-the-book” prosecutor forced to step up when Attorney General Loretta Lynch stupidly disqualified herself by meeting briefly with Bill Clinton. It was the least he could do, they figured, since he would not recommend prosecution of Clinton. However, they still scoff at the notion that Russian interference with our election is not a matter of opinion but of fact. They roll their eyes at the potential that this might be the biggest scandal in American history. They’d rather go after leakers and point the finger at former national security adviser Susan Rice (for seeking to unmask the names of those who consorted with the Russians).

It is rare to see a public figure whose credibility is so widely derided — and simultaneously heralded. Welcome to the Trump era, where people insist they are entitled to their own facts, not just opinions.

We might, however, see a moment of clarity and factual consensus when former acting attorney general Sally Yates testifies. CNN reports:

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates is prepared to testify before a Senate panel next week that she gave a forceful warning to the White House regarding then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn nearly three weeks before he was fired, contradicting the administration’s version of events, sources familiar with her account tell CNN.

In a private meeting January 26, Yates told White House Counsel Don McGahn that Flynn was lying when he denied in public and private that he had discussed US sanctions on Russia in conversations with Russian Ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak. Flynn’s misleading comments, Yates said, made him potentially vulnerable to being compromised by Russia, according to sources familiar with her version of events. She expressed “serious concerns” to McGahn, making it clear — without making a recommendation — that Flynn could be fired. …

On February 14, the day after Flynn’s firing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that Yates had simply “wanted to give a ‘heads up’ to us on some comments that may have seemed in conflict with what he (Flynn) had sent the Vice President.”

Yates is highly motivated to set the record straight about her warning regarding Flynn, one source said.

Well, it will come as no surprise that Spicer was uninformed or dissembling, but Yates could undermine the narrative that President Trump gradually lost faith in Flynn for lying to the vice president. The administration claimed that it was not motivated to come clean, because the media had the story. Yates may be a compelling witness who has either documentation or granular detail that convinces lawmakers that the Trump administration knew Flynn was lying about Russian contacts but kept him on anyway.

Certainty about what the White House knew and when it knew it will raise questions on both sides of the aisle:

  • Why did the administration keep on someone who had lied about Russian contacts while an intelligence and criminal investigation into Russian contacts was ongoing?
  • Were Trump and his advisers trying to cover up this embarrassing fact — action that many will see as deliberate interference with, if not total obstruction of, justice?
  • Did the White House want to keep Flynn in the fold because it feared what he might say as a free agent not on the White House payroll?

Yates may have more to say on different topics, including the scope of recusal appropriate under Justice Department guidelines and the uniqueness of a campaign and transition team with so many connections to a single, hostile power. The public and lawmakers would all benefit from a firsthand account of the Flynn scandal. Whether Republicans choose to believe her is another matter.