Political pundits and Democrats were shocked when Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) abruptly canceled the body's second hearing into alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, scheduled for March 28.
But a story the Washington Post broke the same day added a new wrinkle to the intrigue consuming the Committee: former Attorney General Sally Yates was set to testify, only to have the Trump administration assert executive privilege over her, effectively barring the vast majority of what she would have discussed.
The Post obtained letters sent by the Yates's lawyer to the White House announcing her intention to honor a request from the Intelligence Committee, along with the response from the U.S. Department of Justice to Yates, notifying her that "the administration considers a great deal of her possible testimony to be barred from discussion in a congressional hearing because the topics are covered by the presidential communication privilege."
Executive privilege is the president's right to withhold information from the public or other branches of government, and while it's most commonly associated with former President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, presidential secrecy goes all the way back to former President George Washington.
Yates' lawyers had maintained that her testimony wouldn't have been privileged, and asserted that applying privilege would be "inconsistent with the[Justice] Department’s historical approach to the congressional testimony of current and former senior officials."
President Donald Trump had fired Yates in late January, ostensibly for declaring that she wouldn't enforce the administration's ban on travel from majority Muslim nations. But Yates had also played a key role in the ouster of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was also fired by Trump after revelations surfaced that he'd lied regarding contacts with the Russian ambassador.
Yates had warned the Trump administration that Flynn had violated federal law and was a potential target for Russian blackmail. Now, both names have resurfaced regarding the continuing investigation into Russia's role in the election. In fact, it's the connection between Yates and Flynn that the ousted acting attorney general, at the time, likely was set to testify about.
The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), released a statement shortly after the Washington Post story broke, saying that the canceled hearing would have also allowed Yates "to testify about the events leading up to former National Security Advisor Flynn's firing, including his attempts to cover up his secret conversations with the Russian Ambassador."
In this case, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the Washington Post report "100 percent false."
Spicer went on to add at his daily press briefing on Tuesday, "I hope she testifies. I look forward to it ... We have no problem with her testifying.”
Sources close to the matter have indicated that the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is holding an investigation parallel to the House Committee, intends to have Yates testify at an upcoming hearing.