WASHINGTON — White House officials on Tuesday defended President Donald Trump’s delay in firing his first national security adviser by accusing the veteran prosecutor who warned them about his misdeeds of being a partisan who opposed the president’s agenda.
Sally Q. Yates, whom Trump chose to serve as acting attorney general at the beginning of his administration, testified to a Senate subcommittee Monday that she had warned the White House in January that Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, had lied about his contacts with Russian officials and was vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian government.
Trump waited 18 days after that warning to fire Flynn, and did so only after news reports revealed publicly that Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Russian officials.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said Tuesday that top officials, including the president, had dismissed the warnings from Yates because she was a top Justice Department official in the Obama administration and, Spicer insisted, a supporter of Hillary Clinton.
“Just because someone comes in and gives you a heads-up about something and says, ‘I want to share some information,’ doesn’t mean that you immediately jump the gun and go take an action,” Spicer told reporters.
“I think if you flip this scenario and say, ‘What if we had just dismissed somebody because a political opponent of the president had made an utterance,’ you would argue that it was pretty irrational to act in that matter,” he added.
Yates worked her way up the Justice Department ranks as a prosecutor in Atlanta, rising to senior leadership positions there under Republicans and Democrats. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., introduced her at her confirmation hearing as “a hero of the American people, a hero of what’s right.”
And when Trump won the election, his transition team asked her to stay on as his acting attorney general. “She was the one they selected,” said Matthew Axelrod, her longtime top adviser, now a partner at the law firm Linklaters. “They didn’t inherit Sally Yates. They chose her.”
When Yates hurried to the White House on Jan. 26, she brought with her a longtime national security prosecutor, intending to send the message that the Justice Department had institutional concerns about Flynn.
But Spicer waved that aside on Tuesday, saying the White House had been suspicious of Yates’ motives.
He said Yates “was widely rumored to play a large role in the Justice Department if Hillary Clinton had won.” And he raised the issue of her refusal to defend the president’s travel ban in court, for which Trump fired her.
That happened just days after Yates warned the White House about Flynn.
Spicer said her actions on the travel ban vindicated the belief inside the White House that she was a partisan.
He said Yates was “someone who is not exactly a supporter of the president’s agenda; who, a couple of days after this first conversation took place, refused to uphold a lawful order of the president; who is not exactly someone that was excited about President Trump taking office or his agenda.”