WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Donald Trump insisted there is no evidence he colluded with Russia after a Senate hearing that highlighted warnings that his former national security adviser was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
With the issue of the president's ties to Moscow back in the spotlight, Mr Trump took to Twitter to dismiss as "old news" the Senate testimony on Monday (May 8) by former acting attorney-general Sally Yates about former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Instead, Mr Trump chose to play up former director of national intelligence James Clapper's acknowledgement during the same hearing that he was not aware of any evidence of collusion between the President and Russia, which American intelligence has concluded tried to sway the US election in Mr Trump's favour.
"Director Clapper reiterated what everybody, including the fake media already knows - there is 'no evidence' of collusion w/ Russia and Trump," Mr Trump said.
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Mr Clapper, however, had added that he had not been aware that the issue was under investigation by the FBI until it was publicly revealed in March, suggesting the agency might have evidence he wasn't privy to.
Asked about it, Ms Yates said answering the question would require revealing classified information. But she noted that "you should not draw from that an assumption that that means that the answer is yes".
Ms Yates, a Barack Obama appointee sacked by Trump early in his presidency, took the stand alongside Mr Clapper during the hotly-anticipated three-hour hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Ms Yates confirmed reports that she had told the White House, six days into Mr Trump's administration, that Mr Flynn, a former military intelligence chief, had not been honest with Vice-President Mike Pence about his discussions with the Russian Ambassador to Washington, leaving him vulnerable to leverage from Moscow.
It nevertheless took 18 days before the President, pressed by Mr Pence and others, dismissed the retired army lieutenant general, who had advised him on security issues throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.
"We believed that General Flynn was compromised with respect to the Russians," Ms Yates told the hearing in her first public comments on the scandal which has dogged the opening months of Mr Trump's presidency.
"This was a problem because not only did we believe that the Russians knew this but that they likely had proof of this information. And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians." Ms Yates, who was fired on Jan 30 after defying Mr Trump over his contested travel ban, did not say what Mr Flynn discussed with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in a number of phone calls made in December 2016 which were secretly monitored by US intelligence.
Mr Pence said in January that Mr Flynn denied those calls involved sanctions placed on Russia by the Obama administration in response to its election meddling.
OBAMA WARNED TRUMP
Mr Trump has repeatedly branded the issue of Russian interference "fake news" despite the US intelligence community's conclusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself was behind the meddling.
In a series of tweets on Monday evening, Trump doubled down on that stance.
"The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?" fumed one post, while in a second the president targeted Yates - claiming she had "said nothing but old news!" after earlier assailing her for allegedly leaking classified information.
Known as a tough and independent prosecutor, Ms Yates has been a target of Mr Trump's ire since her refusal in January to support his controversial immigration ban on nationals from several Muslim-majority nations - for which he fired her.
Ms Yates' comments came after former Obama officials revealed that the outgoing president himself firmly warned Mr Trump against naming Mr Flynn as national security adviser, just two days after the Nov 8 election.
Mr Obama had cautioned against Mr Flynn, whom he fired in 2014 as head of the defence intelligence agency, due to his poor record in administration and personnel management.
In separate testimony on Monday, Mr Clapper called Russia's interference in last year's election "a clarion call for vigilance and action against a threat to the very foundations of our democratic political system">
"I believe they're now emboldened to continue such activities in the future, both here and around the world, and to do so even more intensely," he said.
The dual testimony by Ms Yates and Mr Clapper returned the spotlight to the simmering controversy over Russia's meddling in last year's US election.
Probes by several congressional committees into Russian election meddling have been bogged down for weeks amid accusations by Democrats that Republicans have stalled progress to protect the White House.