WASHINGTON - The Trump administration sought to block former acting attorney general Sally Yates from testifying in the House investigation of possible links between Russian officials and Donald Trump's campaign, according to letters provided to The Washington Post. The effort to keep Yates from testifying has further angered Democrats, who have accused Republicans of trying to damage the inquiry.
According to the letters, the Justice Department notified Yates earlier this month that the administration considers her possible testimony - including on the firing of former national security adviser Michael Flynn for his contacts with the Russian ambassador - to be off-limits in a congressional hearing because the topics are covered by attorney-client privilege or the presidential communication privilege.
The issue of Yates' testimony adds to the political controversy surrounding the House Intelligence Committee's investigation of Russian meddling in last year's election and any possible coordination between Trump associates and Moscow.
David O'Neil, an attorney for Yates, met at the Justice Department to discuss the issue with government officials on Thursday. At the meeting, O'Neil presented a letter in which he said the Justice Department had "advised" him that Yates' official communications on issues of interest to the House panel are "client confidences" that cannot be disclosed without written consent. O'Neil challenged that interpretation as "overbroad" in the letter.
The following day, in a letter to O'Neil, the Justice Department responded with another objection: that Yates's communications with the White House are probably covered by "presidential communications privilege," and referred him to the White House.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
O'Neil then wrote to White House Counsel Donald McGahn, saying that he believed any privilege had been waived as a result of past White House statements and that Yates planned to testify unless he heard back from McGahn.
But that same day, the hearing, which also would have included former CIA director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper, was canceled by the House Intelligence Committee's chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes , R-Calif., and any White House decision on Yates's testimony became moot.
In his Tuesday briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer said that the White House did not weigh in on whether Yates could testify. "To suggest in any way, shape or form that we stood in the way of that is 100 percent false," he said.
Nunes has said he canceled the hearing to first hear from FBI Director James Comey in a classified setting. That session was also canceled.
Democrats charge that Nunes has aligned himself too closely with the White House to conduct an independent probe.
"You see the unraveling of this committee happening overnight for no good reason," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a committee member. "We have a responsibility to do this investigation."
O'Neil's meeting at the Justice Department and the exchange of letters came to light as the House GOP leadership continued to stand by Nunes. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., rejected demands that Nunes recuse himself. Nunes said Tuesday that he had no plans to step aside.
Yates was the deputy attorney general in the final years of the Obama administration and served as the acting attorney general in the first days of the Trump administration.
Trump fired Yates in January after she ordered Justice Department lawyers not to defend his first immigration order temporarily banning entry to the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from around the world.
As acting attorney general, Yates played a key part in the investigation surrounding Flynn, who was ousted after revelations that he had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Yates and Brennan had made clear to government officials by Thursday that their testimony to the committee would probably contradict some statements that White House officials had made, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
O'Neil and Ken Wainstein, a lawyer for Brennan, declined to comment.
During his press briefing Tuesday, Spicer said of Yates: "I hope she testifies. I look forward to it.''
Spicer said the White House did not seek to have the House hearing canceled.
Rep. Adam Schiff , Calif., 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.''
In January, Yates warned McGahn that statements White House officials, including Vice President Pence, had made about Flynn's contact with the ambassador were incorrect and could therefore expose the national security adviser to future blackmail by the Russians.
In his March 23 letter - addressed to acting assistant attorney general Samuel Ramer - O'Neil noted that Yates was willing to testify and that she would avoid discussing classified information and details that could compromise investigations. The correspondence was later shared with the House Intelligence Committee.
O'Neil went on to memorialize the government's position:
"The Department of Justice has advised that it believes there are further constraints on the testimony Ms. Yates may provide at the [House Intelligence Committee] hearing. Generally, we understand that the department takes the position that all information Ms. Yates received or actions she took in her capacity as Deputy Attorney General and acting Attorney General are client confidences that she may not disclose absent written consent of the department,'' he wrote.
O'Neil continued: "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 officials.
"In particular, we believe that Ms. Yates should not be obligated to refuse to provide non-classified facts about the department's notification to the White House of concerns about the conduct of a senior official. Requiring Ms. Yates to refuse to provide such information is particularly untenable given that multiple senior administration officials have publicly described the same events.''
The following day, Scott Schools, a senior Justice Department lawyer, replied to O'Neil, writing that Yates' conversations with the White House "are likely covered by the presidential communications privilege and possibly the deliberative process privilege. The president owns those privileges. Therefore, to the extent Ms. Yates needs consent to disclose the details of those communications to [the intelligence panel], she needs to consult with the White House. She need not obtain separate consent from the department.''
That letter, in essence, marked Justice Department officials backing away from their earlier strictures, saying that although they thought executive privilege probably applied to Yates's discussions, that was a conversation she would have to have with lawyers at the White House.
In response, O'Neil sent a letter Friday to McGahn, the White House counsel, saying that any claim of privilege "has been waived as a result of the multiple public comments of current senior White House officials describing the January 2017 communications. Nevertheless, I am advising the White House of Ms. Yates' intention to provide information.''
He closed the letter by saying that if he did not hear back from the White House by 10 a.m. Monday, he would assume that it "does not exert executive privilege over these matters with respect to the hearings or other settings.''
The cancellation of the hearing made O'Neil's deadline moot, although Spicer said the lack of a response to the lawyer's letter showed the administration had no problem with Yates testifying.
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.
The Trump administration sought to stop former acting attorney general Sally Yates from testifying before the House Intelligence Committee about links between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. (Video: Jenny Starrs/Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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WASHINGTON - Congress sent proposed legislation to President Donald Trump on Tuesday that wipes away landmark online privacy protections, the first salvo in what is likely to become a significant reworking of the rules governing Internet access in an era of Republican dominance.
In a party-line vote, House Republicans freed Internet service providers such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast of protections approved just last year that had sought to limit what companies could do with information such as customer browsing habits, app usage history, location data and Social Security numbers. The rules had also required providers to strengthen safeguards for customer data against hackers and thieves.
The Senate has already voted to nullify those measures, which were set to take effect at the end of this year. If Trump signs the legislation, as expected, providers will be able to monitor their customers' behavior online and, without their permission, use their personal and financial information to sell highly targeted ads - making them rivals to Google and Facebook in the $83 billion online advertising market.
The providers could also sell their users' information directly to marketers, financial firms and other companies that mine personal data - all of whom could use the data without consumers' consent. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission, which initially drafted the protections, will be forbidden from issuing similar rules in the future.
Search engines and streaming video sites already collect usage data on consumers. But consumer activists claim that Internet providers may know much more about a person's activities because they can see all of the sites a customer visits.
And while consumers can easily abandon sites whose privacy practices they don't agree with, it is far more difficult to choose a different Internet provider, the activists said. Many Americans have a choice of only one or two broadband companies in their area, according to federal statistics.
Advocates for tough privacy protections online called Tuesday's vote "a tremendous setback for America."
"Today's vote means that Americans will never be safe online from having their most personal details stealthily scrutinized and sold to the highest bidder," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
Supporters of Tuesday's repeal vote argued the privacy regulations stifle innovation by forcing Internet providers to abide by unreasonably strict guidelines.
"[Consumer privacy] will be enhanced by removing the uncertainty and confusion these rules will create," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the FCC.
Policy analysts said the deregulatory effort may be the first of several that could alter the future of the Internet. While regulators under President Barack Obama had moved to limit the power of Internet providers - by restricting what they could do with customer information, and curbing their ability to block websites or slow down certain types of content - momentum appears to be moving in the opposite direction.
For example, consumer advocates fear that Congress or the FCC's new Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, may seek to roll back the agency's rules on net neutrality - the policy that forbids Internet providers from blocking content they don't like or charging websites a fee to reach consumers over faster Internet speeds. Industry analysts said Tuesday that the FCC is also poised to deregulate the $40-billion-a-year industry for data connections used by hospitals, universities and ATMs.
Tuesday's vote is a sign that Internet providers will be treated more permissively at a time when conservatives control the executive and legislative branches. That could be a boon for companies such as Verizon and Comcast as they race to become online advertising giants.
Internet providers have historically made their money from selling access to the Web. But now these providers are looking to increase their revenues by tapping the vast troves of data their customers generate as they visit websites, watch videos, read information and download apps.
Industry backers say that allowing providers to use data-driven targeting could benefit consumers by leading to more relevant advertisements and innovative business models. AT&T, for instance, used to offer Internet discounts to consumers in exchange for letting the company monitor their browsing history. With Tuesday's vote, such programs could see a return and be marketed as a way to access cheaper Internet - though consumer groups have criticized these plans as a way for providers to charge customers a premium for their privacy.
Tuesday's vote took aim at FCC rules that were approved in October over strident Republican objections. At the time, the agency's Democratic leadership argued that consumers deserved the same privacy protections governing legacy telephone service. As more Americans turn to the Internet to find jobs, do homework and seek education, the agency said, consumers needed new protections to keep pace with technology.
But industry advocates said the FCC's rules defined privacy far too broadly. The industry favors the interpretation of another agency - the Federal Trade Commission - that does not consider Social Security numbers, location data or browsing history to be sensitive and protected.
But the FTC does not have the authority to punish Internet providers that violate its guidelines. That is because of a rule that leaves oversight of those companies to the FCC.
As a result, Tuesday's vote may release Internet providers from the FCC's privacy regulation, but the FTC would also be unable to enforce its own guidelines on the industry without new authority from Congress.
"One would hope - because consumers want their privacy protected - that [providers] would be good actors and they would ask permission and do these nice things," Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., said in a House committee hearing Monday. "But there's no law now that says they have to, and there's no cop on the beat saying, 'Hey, we caught you doing something.' "
Pai, the FCC chairman, called the legislation "appropriate" and blamed his Democratic predecessor for executive overreach. He also said that responsibility for regulating Internet providers should fall to the FTC.
"Moving forward, I want the American people to know that the FCC will work with the FTC to ensure that consumers' online privacy is protected though a consistent and comprehensive framework," Pai said. "The best way to achieve that result would be to return jurisdiction over broadband providers' privacy practices to the FTC, with its decades of experience and expertise in this area."
Pai has previously said his agency could continue to bring lawsuits against firms that are alleged to have violated consumer privacy, even if the FCC privacy rules were to be repealed.