By Mark Hosenball and Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The No. 2 Justice Department official under President Barack Obama told Congress that before President Donald Trump's inauguration, his national security adviser told a Russian diplomat Trump would "essentially neutralize" sanctions imposed on Russia for alleged 2016 U.S. election interference.
Sally Yates, Obama's deputy attorney general, told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday it was "highly irregular" for Trump adviser Michael Flynn to tell Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak that the incoming administration hoped Russia would minimize its response to post-election sanctions.
In late December 2016, Obama expelled 35 suspected Russian spies from the United States in response to intelligence that Russia exploited social media and circulated hacked Hillary Clinton campaign emails to try to damage Clinton's presidential campaign and boost Trump's.
"This was an attack on our democracy. This attack was absolutely unprecedented," Yates said. Russia's response to Obama's sanctions was muted.
Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, was charged criminally by Special Counsel Robert Mueller during his investigation into Moscow's alleged election interference.
Flynn twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Kislyak. Flynn subsequently switched lawyers to pursue a legal campaign which accused the FBI of setting him up.
He asked a federal judge to dismiss the criminal case against him. The dismissal request, backed by Trump's Justice Department, is now pending before a U.S. appeals court.
Committee Republicans used the hearing to air complaints by Trump supporters that the Obama-era Justice Department had used a controversial "dossier" on alleged Trump contacts with Russia prepared for Clinton's campaign by a former British spy to obtain an electronic surveillance warrant on a former Trump campaign aide before the 2016 election.
Yates said she was "not aware of anyone at the Department of Justice trying to keep Donald Trump from becoming president."
Trump fired Yates in the first month of his presidency when she refused to defend his administration's first effort to ban travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)