(CNSNews.com) - Both in her opening statement and in several hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates insisted that the January 5, 2017 White House meeting involving President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, FBI Director James Comey, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Yates herself was not about investigating the Trump campaign.
She said it was about incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn having conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, which "essentially neutered the U.S. government's message of deterrence," thus "undercutting the Obama administration," which had just sanctioned Russia for election interference.
One of Flynn's calls to Kislyak took place in late December, on the day after Obama sanctioned Russia.
Russia at first said it would retaliate, but then backed off its threat. Yates said the Obama administration "was understandably perplexed by this abrupt change, and President Obama asked the intel community to try to figure out what had happened. And the FBI discovered the answer," she said.
"Recorded conversations between General Flynn and the ambassador revealed that General Flynn had essentially neutered the U.S. government's message of deterrence. Far from rebuking the Russians for their attack on our country, General Flynn was conciliatory. He tried to persuade the Russians not to escalate the situation so they could reset the relationship."
According to transcripts of their phone conversations, Flynn urged Ambassador Kislyak, "Don’t go any further than you have to. Because I don’t want us to get into something that has to escalate, on a, you know, on a tit for tat. You follow me, Ambassador?" Flynn urged "cool heads" to prevail.
In another call two days later, Kislyak told Flynn that Russia would hold off on retaliation: "Your proposal that we need to act with cold heads, uh, is exactly what is, uh, invested in the decision," Kislyak said.
Yates told the committee the purpose of the Jan. 5 meeting "was for the president to find out whether, based on the calls between Ambassador Kislyak and General Flynn, the transition team needed to be careful about what it was sharing with General Flynn. During the meeting, the President Vice President and the National Security Advisor did not in any way attempt to direct -- or influence any kind of investigation.
"Something like that would have set off alarms for me, and it would have stuck out both at the time and in my memory. No such thing happened," Yates said.
"The President was focused entirely on the national security implications of sharing sensitive intelligence information with General Flynn during the transition, a process that was already under way at the White House."
Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham asked Yates, "Is it longstanding policy of the U.S. that an incoming administration cannot talk to foreign leaders about change in policy?"
"You can certainly talk to foreign leaders about a change in policy, but this was not policy. This was undercutting sanctions," Yates said.
Yates told the committee she has a "vague memory" of FBI Director Comey mentioning the Logan Act at the Jan. 5 meeting. The Logan Act, passed in 1799, forbids private citizens from engaging in unauthorized communication with foreign governments.
Graham told Yates he doesn't understand why the Logan Act came up at the meeting:
"You had one administration leaving in two weeks and you had a new administration coming in, urging them, don't escalate. To anyone who thinks that is a violation of the Logan Act, that is stunning as hell -- you cannot hit the ground running."
On January 24, 2017 -- four days after Trump took office -- two FBI agents went to Flynn's office to interview him at the behest of Comey. Yates said she did not know about the interview beforehand, and she was "upset that Director Comey didn't coordinate that with us and acted unilaterally."
Yates said the FBI went to interview Flynn as part of a counterintelligence investigation, to find out about his conversations with Kislyak, and she believes there was a "legitimate basis" for that interview.
Graham asked her if the FBI was "investigating a policy difference between the Trump administration and the Obama administration."
"No, senator. We were not investigating a policy difference...We were investigating a counterintelligence threat."
Graham told Yates, "Your beef with Flynn was he was undercutting Obama policy. Is that what you were worried about?"
"Well, what we were worried about was that he was undercutting Obama policy, and then he was covering it up," Yates responded.
But moments later, Yates told Graham: "The concern was not about the policy difference here, Senator. The concern was about him undercutting the Obama administration and then covering it up."
Graham noted that the FBI had recommended closing the Flynn investigation on January 4, the day before the White House meeting where Flynn was the main topic of conversation:
"The only problem here is that you didn't like Flynn changing the policy or talking about changing the policy. That -- he had every right to do that. And what we're doing here is criminalizing policy differences.
"That is why Flynn got prosecuted, because they hate his guts," Graham said.