Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates told senators Wednesday that James B. Comey went rogue as FBI director in January 2017 when he dispatched agents to interview Michael Flynn, President Trump’s national security adviser at the time, without her authorization.
Ms. Yates, who was the No. 2 official at the Justice Department in the early stages of the Trump-Russia collusion probe, said she neither authorized nor knew ahead of time about the FBI interview with Flynn.
“Did Comey go rogue?” asked Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and Judiciary Committee chairman.
“You could use that term, yes,” replied Ms. Yates, who testified at a hearing for the committee’s probe of the FBI’s search for collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin to rig the 2016 election.
The testimony from Ms. Yates painted Mr. Comey as acting unilaterally and is likely to increase calls by Senate Republicans that he explain himself before the Judiciary Committee. It also shielded former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, the likely Democratic nominee for president, from accusations of wrongdoing. Republicans sought to connect Mr. Biden to the Trump-Russia collusion probe.
Republicans at times took Ms. Yates to task for failing to ask more questions about the FBI’s actions in the Russia probe. However, she offered little new insight into the behind-the-scenes maneuvers that set the investigation into motion.
A frequent topic of contention was the case against Flynn, whose statements during the January 2017 interview with the FBI ultimately led to his prosecution for lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.
The Obama-era Justice Department claims it was concerned that Flynn could be compromised by the Kremlin.
Ms. Yates said Wednesday that she urged the FBI to warn the incoming Trump administration about Flynn, while Mr. Comey pushed forward with interviewing Flynn without telling the Justice Department.
Flynn was fired in February 2017 for allegedly lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his calls with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador.
He later pleaded guilty to charges of lying to the FBI, but the Justice Department has sought to abandon the case. A federal appeals court will hear oral arguments next week on whether the courts should heed that decision.
Ms. Yates’ testimony points to an FBI acting unilaterally and ignoring years of Justice Department protocols. But it also counters Republican claims that former President Barack Obama or Mr. Biden had tried to influence the Flynn probe. She repeatedly knocked down such accusations.
“The president, the vice president did not attempt to in any way [to] direct or influence any investigation,” she said, adding that doing so would have “set off alarms for me.”
Republicans pressed Ms. Yates on a January 2017 White House meeting she attended with Mr. Obama, Mr. Biden and Mr. Comey. During that meeting, officials discussed prosecuting Flynn under the little-used Logan Act.
Handwritten notes from former FBI agent Peter Strzok indicated that Mr. Biden may have first brought up the Logan Act, an obscure law from 1799 that prohibits U.S. citizens from negotiating with foreign leaders.
Asked whether Mr. Biden mentioned the Logan Act, Ms. Yates said she could not recall. She did say that she spoke with Mr. Comey about the Logan Act but could not remember whether that was during the Oval Office meeting or afterward.
Ms. Yates also batted away questions about the FBI’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act application to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The Justice Department inspector general found myriad problems with the Page warrant application, including several omissions and inaccuracies and a reliance on unverified and doctored information.
Ms. Yates denied knowing the FISA warrant application was faulty when she signed it in October 2016 and renewed it several months later.
“If I had known it had incorrect information, I certainly wouldn’t have signed it,” she said.
At the time, the FBI suspected Mr. Page was colluding with Russians to help the Trump campaign. He was never charged with a crime, and no public evidence linked him to Russia’s election interference efforts.
Ms. Yates signed off on the error-laden document to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
“I certainly regret that the Justice Department submitted FBI FISA applications that were inaccurate,” she said. “I think it is antithetical to our responsibility to the FISA Court. I think it is also inconsistent with what my experience with the FBI had been in terms of their preparation of affidavits and their accuracy.”
Republicans erupted, assailing her for failing to fact-check the Page warrant application.
“She has no idea that these applications that she signed materially misled a federal court. Nobody appears to know anything in this government and, yet, somehow a federal court was deliberately and systematically misled so severely that they can’t trust anything the FBI did,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican. “If this doesn’t call for a cleaning of house at the FBI and DOJ, I don’t know what does.”
The panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, accused Mr. Hawley of making “inflammatory remarks.”
Mr. Graham immediately jumped to his colleague’s defense, saying Mr. Hawley’s comments were “the truth.”
“What the hell is going on over there?” Mr. Graham said of the Justice Department and FBI. “Everybody’s to blame and no one’s to blame. That is the problem we have.”
Mr. Trump criticized Ms. Yates in a tweet shortly after the hearing began.
“Sally Yates has zero credibility,” he tweeted. “She was part of the greatest political crime of the Century and ObamaBiden knew EVERYTHING! Sally Yates leaked the General Flynn conversation? Ask her under oath. Republicans should start playing the Democrats game!”
Still, Mr. Graham said the former Obama-era official exercised “good caution and legal judgment” by demanding that the FBI talk to the Trump White House about Flynn.
“If people followed her advice, things might be different today,” Mr. Graham said. “From my point of view, you analyzed the situation fairly correctly.”