Both Michael T. Flynn and Sally Yates committed about three decades of their lives in service to the United States. Each served various administrations. And each was asked to step down from a prominent position by President Trump.
But the attitudes of the Trump administration toward Flynn and Yates couldn’t be more different. Flynn was asked to resign as national security adviser after it became public that he had had conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States that were inappropriate — and that contradicted what Vice President Pence had asserted in interviews. Yates was asked to resign after she refused to uphold Trump’s initial immigration ban, a decision she made as acting attorney general before the confirmation of Jeff Sessions.
The distinction between the two situations is that Flynn was acting in service to Trump and Yates in opposition. So, when asked about the two during his news briefing Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer was magnanimous in insisting that the media not “smear” Flynn’s record — then proceeding to cast aspersions on Yates’s.
The Daily Caller’s Kaitlan Collins asked Spicer to explain why the president continues to defend Flynn publicly despite his having been asked to leave the administration.
“I think Mike Flynn is somebody who honorably served our country in uniform for over 30 years,” Spicer replied. “As he’s noted, Lieutenant General Flynn was asked for his resignation because he misled the vice president. But beyond that, I think he did have an honorable career, he served with distinction in uniform for over 30 years, and the president does not want to smear a good man.”
The timeline is correct; Flynn was commissioned in 1981 and served in the military until 2014. His leaving at that point, though, seems germane to Spicer’s praise. Flynn was fired by President Barack Obama, too, asked to leave his position as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the middle of Obama’s second term. Flynn frames this as payback for his opposing Obama’s agenda in fighting the Islamic State militant group, but other reports indicate that he was “disruptive” and “chaotic” in his leadership of the agency. Regardless, Trump tapped him to serve as his national security adviser.
Collins brought up Flynn because, on Monday, Yates testified before a Senate subcommittee that she had warned the Trump White House about Flynn’s conversation with the ambassador, which had been picked up by intelligence agencies while monitoring the ambassador. Yates testified that she warned White House counsel Don McGahn that Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians, who also knew that Flynn’s comments were inappropriate and that Pence had represented the conversation differently. Collins pressed Spicer on the fact that, after Yates offered that warning, Flynn was still allowed to perform his official duties — including participating in classified conversations.
“Do you think it’s worrisome that he was still doing that when he was potentially a target of Russian blackmail?” she asked.
Spicer then appeared to suggest that the warning from Yates was dismissed because it was from Yates.
“Let’s look at, again, how this came down,” he replied. “Someone who is not exactly a supporter of the president’s agenda, who, a couple of days after this first conversation took place, refused to uphold a lawful order of the president’s. Who is not exactly someone who was excited about President Trump taking office or his agenda.”
Spicer was asked in subsequent questions to explain his comments about Yates’s loyalty to the administration.
“Appointed by the Obama administration and a strong supporter of Clinton,” Spicer said at one point. Asked to clarify his assertion that she was a “supporter of Clinton,” Spicer later said Yates was “widely rumored to play a large role in the Justice Department if Hillary Clinton had won.”
NBC’s Hallie Jackson pressed him on that point. Was it the right call for Flynn to sit in on meetings despite Yates’s warning?
“What you have is somebody who was an Obama appointee coming in and saying — you have somebody who you have to wonder why they’re telling you something,” Spicer replied.
“You said it was widely rumored that she wanted to be a part of the Clinton White House potentially,” Jackson replied.
Spicer’s rationale? Yates was “somebody who clearly showed by the fact that career attorneys told her that she should sign the president’s lawful order and then chose not to do it — that vindicates the president’s point. This is not somebody who was looking out — my point is, we were correct in the assumptions we made at the time.”
What Spicer appears to be saying is that the Trump White House didn’t trust or believe Yates when she first came to raise concerns about Flynn for no other reason than that she was an “Obama appointee” — a decision that was later validated when she declined to enforce Trump’s immigration ban (which, it’s worth noting, has been blocked by the courts while its constitutionality is evaluated). That opposition to Trump is cause enough to dismiss her as being a Clinton loyalist, apparently. That is enough for her professionalism to be smeared.
We’ll note that the source of the “rumors” about her playing a role in the Clinton White House is unclear. In January, Axios’s Mike Allen published a list of likely Clinton Cabinet appointees had she won in November, compiled after talking to Clinton campaign officials. Yates’s name isn’t included; the picks for attorney general are “Loretta Lynch retained, Jennifer Granholm, Jamie Gorelick, Tom Perez.”
It’s also critical to point out that Yates is an “Obama appointee” in the sense that her elevation to deputy attorney general occurred under him. She began her Justice Department career in 1989 — eight years after Flynn — working as an assistant U.S. attorney in Georgia under Bob Barr, who would later go on to serve in Congress as a Republican. In 2014, she was chosen to serve as Eric H. Holder Jr.’s chief aide and confirmed by the Senate. She served in the Justice Department for more than 11 years under Republican presidents and for 16 under Democrats.
Yates’s role in the Flynn saga was simply to warn the White House about his behavior — a warning that dealt specifically with the cause of Flynn’s losing his job. You’d think that she’d be the hero of the story, especially given that Flynn, too, was an Obama appointee.
But Flynn publicly broke with the Obama administration and embraced Trump, in a manner that his former colleagues found baffling. Yates did neither of those things, remaining neutral except in that she cited a legal rationale for opposing a critical Trump initiative.
Therefore, in the vernacular of the White House press secretary, she is not a “good man” and, thus, is fair game for being smeared.