The White House has said it has “no problem” with a former Department of Justice official testifying before a committee investigating possible links between Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the Trump administration had done nothing to prevent former acting Attorney General Sally Yates appearing before the House Intelligence Committee’s ongoing investigation.
“I hope she testifies. I look forward to it,” Mr Spicer said during a briefing at the White House. “We have no problem with her testifying, plain and simple.”
Was today's open hearing cancelled because WH did not want Sally Yates to testify re Gen Flynn's deception? Didn't want to assert privilege? pic.twitter.com/qO63IfPtAP— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) March 28, 2017
Mr Spicer spoke after a report in the Washington Post claimed that the Trump administration had tried to block Ms Yates appearing before the committee, by citing presidential confidentiality.
It referred to a letter from the Department of Justice to Ms Yates lawyer, saying that her communications with White House counsel were “likely covered by the presidential communications privilege”.
Many Democrats and opponents of Mr Trump were quick to claim that the government, or its allies on Capitol Hill, were trying to stop her from speaking.
Ms Yates was forced to step down earlier this year after refusing to enact Mr Trump’s Muslim travel ban. She had previously told the Trump campaign that security advisor Michael Flynn may have left himself vulnerable to blackmail attempts from Moscow after lying about conversations with the Russian Ambassador to Washington.
Mr Spicer said the article in the Washington Post was “100 per cent false” and said the letters the newspaper had published to support its story, actually backed up his claim that the White House had not tried to block her.
He drew attention to a letter from Ms Yates lawyer, David O’Neill, to White House counsel Donald McGahn, saying that she intended to give testimony to the House committee.
The letter, dated March 24, concluded: “If I do not receive a response by Monday March 27 at 10am EDT, I will conclude that the White House does not exert executive privilege over these matters with respect to the hearing or other settings.”
Mr Spicer said the White House had not responded to that letter, an indication he said, that the Trump administration had not sought to stop her speaking.
“It specifically said that if we did not respond they will go ahead, and we said nothing,” he said. “We’re happy for her to testify….We have not problems with her testifying.”
The letter from Mr O’Neill was sent on the same day that House Intelligence Committee Chairman, Devin Nunes, cancelled a previously scheduled hearing where Ms Yates was scheduled to testify about ties between Trump advisors and Russian officials.
Mr Nunes spokesperson, Jack Langer, told CNN that neither Mr Nunes nor any intelligence committee staff members spoke with the White House about Ms Yates’ scheduled testimony.
“The only person the committee has spoken to about her appearing before the committee has been her lawyer. The committee asked her to testify on our own accord and we still intend to have her speak to us,” Mr Langer said.
Congressman Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee, said he was “aware that former AG Yates intended to speak on these matters and 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,” Mr Schiff said in a statement.
“But we would urge that the open hearing be rescheduled without further delay and that Ms. Yates be permitted to testify freely and openly.”
Democrats have called on Mr Nunes to recuse himself from the investigation after he acknowledged he went to the White House to review intelligence reports and meet a secret source.
Shortly afterward, Mr Nunes announced that Trump associates’ communications had been caught up in “incidental” surveillance, a revelation Mr Trump used to defend his unproven claim that his predecessor tapped the phones at Trump Tower.