Over two decades as a career federal prosecutor here in her hometown of Atlanta, Sally Yates built a reputation as a smart, fearless and nonpartisan public servant, someone who followed wherever the law and the truth would take her, but no further.
Then, a couple of years ago, she got lured away into the political cesspool that is Washington, D.C., where few emerge with their reputations intact.
No worries, though. Homegirl did good. Real good.
In late January, when President Trump issued the first of his two attempted travel bans against citizens of seven Muslim countries, Yates was serving as acting U.S. attorney general. In that job, it would have been her duty to attempt to defend the legality and constitutionality of that executive order, but after reading the order and consulting colleagues, Yates refused to do so. Defending it as constitutional would have required Yates to argue that it was not motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment, and as Yates knew, that simply wasn’t the truth.
Trump then fired her, as is his right as president. Since then, a series of federal judges has echoed Yates’ interpretation of the law and Constitution. The administration was forced to withdraw that first order, in effect proving that Yates had been right, and so far even Trump’s second order isn’t faring any better in the courts.
As deputy and later acting attorney general, Yates was also involved in the investigation into Russia’s direct meddling into the 2016 elections and into former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s ties to Russia. It seems like ancient history in the wake of the Comey fiasco, but it was only Monday that Yates was invited back to Washington to testify about l'affaire Flynn before a Senate subcommittee.
Not surprisingly, several Republican senators tried to find safer political ground by grilling Yates on the travel ban instead of Flynn. It didn’t work out so well for them.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas launched the first attack, demanding to know why she had made that decision. Yates replied calmly, clearly well-prepared. She recalled her testimony before Cornyn and the Senate Judiciary Committee just two years earlier, when she was being confirmed as deputy attorney general:
“You specifically asked me in that hearing that if the president asked me to do something that was unlawful or unconstitutional … or even just that would reflect poorly on the Department of Justice, would I say no?” Yates said. “… That’s what I promised you I would do and that’s what I did.”
A few minutes later the junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, stepped up to bat. The former Supreme Court clerk and self-styled defender of religious freedom cited a federal law that in his opinion gave Trump clear power to issue such a ban. He then demanded to know why Yates had refused to abide by the president’s order.
Yates, again prepared, quickly cited federal statutes to rebut Cruz. However, she made it clear that her true concerns had been deeper and more profound.
“In this particular instance, particularly where we were talking about a fundamental issue of religious freedom — not the interpretation of some arcane statute, but religious freedom — it was appropriate for us to look at the intent behind the president’s actions, and the intent is laid out in his statements,” she “woman-explained.”
That’s exactly right. As recently as Monday, the Trump campaign site still featured his promise to ban immigration by all Muslims. He told us over and over where he was coming from with that call, in no uncertain terms, and that can’t be ignored.
As Yates explained to Cornyn, “all arguments have to be based on truth, because we’re the Department of Justice.”
NOTE: In case you're wondering, this was scheduled for blog publication earlier this week but got superseded by President Trump.