Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates managed to dominate the headlines on Monday by casting fired national security adviser Mike Flynn as "compromised" and susceptible to blackmail, despite Republican efforts to focus on the leaks that led to his downfall.
Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, but Democrats and Republicans often seemed to be conducting parallel hearings on different subjects.
Democrats frequently pressed for answers on the alleged Russian collusion with Donald Trump's presidential campaign, while Republicans focused on the "unmasking" of Trump officials and unauthorized leaks. Neither uncovered any major bombshells, and Clapper specifically denied he was aware of any evidence of collusion.
But Republican senators faced criticism for continuing with their questions about unmasking even after Yates described a potential "situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians," referring to Flynn. One panel Republican who has been a frequent detractor of the president echoed this complaint.
Yates testified that not only did Flynn give Vice President Pence untruthful information about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, but that Moscow likely knew it. Headlines about Flynn's purported vulnerability to blackmail dominated the news coverage of the hearings.
"We felt like it was critical that we get this information to the White House in part because the vice president was unknowingly making false statements to the public and because we believed Gen. Flynn was compromised with respect to the Russians," she said.
Yates was fired by the president at the end of January when she refused to defend his immigration and travel executive order against legal challenges, which had already made her a hero to Democrats.
President Trump and his defenders have frequently decried the media leaks and pointed the finger at former President Obama's national security adviser Susan Rice and administration holdovers like Yates. Trump has called Russian collusion allegations a "faux" story designed to make Democrats "feel better" about losing the election.
Trump didn't get as much help as he would have liked from his own party. The subcommittee's chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is a Russia hawk who clashed with Trump throughout last year's campaign and did not vote for him in November. Graham pressed Yates and Clapper on both Russian interference and Obama administration unmasking.
The answers he got back were only partially helpful to Trump. When he asked Clapper if it's still true that he has no information about Trump's team colluding with Russia, Clapper said, "it is."
But when he asked Yates the same question, she said she couldn't answer.
"And senator, my answer to that question would require me to reveal classified information," Yates responded. "And so, I — I can't answer that."
The former Justice Department official later added, "I'd like to make clear, that just because I say I can't answer it, you should not draw from that an assumption that that means that the answer is yes."
Meanwhile, Democrats played up the amount of time between when Yates first sounded the alarm over Flynn and his eventual firing by the president, which came after the news went public through the Washington Post.
"Apparently, Lt. Gen. Flynn remained national security adviser for 18 days after you raised the Justice Department's concern," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., while questioning Yates. "In your view, during those 18 days, did the risk that Flynn had been or could be compromised diminish at all?"
Yates said she had no answer to Feinstein's question, and both she and Clapper denied knowing how the Post got its information about Flynn.
Republicans were left to play out their hand, and focused on the unmasking of Trump officials by the Obama administration. But both officials said they had no knowledge of how classified information got out, if it did at all. Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, were among the most outspoken on unmasking.
"As far as you know, has any classified information relating to Mr. Trump or his associates been declassified and shared with the media?" asked Grassley.
"Not to my knowledge," Clapper replied. "Not to my knowledge either," Yates responded.
The latest round of inquiries about Russia and the presidential election come as the Trump administration has taken a harder line against Moscow. The president ordered strikes against Syria, in response to a chemical weapons attack on civilians, over Russian objections.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described U.S.-Russian relations as being at a "low point." Tillerson also said Russia was either complicit in Syrian chemical weapons use or incompetent. "How many children have to die before Russia cares?" asked United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has also said there is "no question" Russia "certainly" meddled in the U.S. presidential election.
Still, Trump was slow to accept conclusions that Russia was involved in the hacking of Democratic Party officials during the presidential campaign. "From my point of view, there's no doubt in my mind it was the Russians involved in all the things I just described — not some 400-pound guy sitting on a bed, or any other country," Graham said, mocking one of Trump's alternative explanations.
The president dismissed Yates' testimony as "old news" afterward. Earlier in the day, he challenged senators to ask her under oath about the Flynn leaks.
But Graham acknowledged the threat, and warned his fellow Republicans that they could be next. "Russia is up to no good when it comes to democracies all over the world," he said.