“I think you just won the nomination,” Tina Brown joked as she was joined onstage by Sally Yates, stepping out to rapturous applause, at the ninth annual Women in the World Summit in New York on Friday.
Introduced by Brown as “the woman who wouldn’t back down,” Yates spent spent 27 years at the Justice Department, working her way up to deputy attorney general under Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, whom she eventually succeeded as acting attorney general. And then came President Trump’s controversial executive order, in January 2017, shuttering the country’s borders to refugees and foreign nationals from several predominantly Muslim countries, ostensibly to “protect the American people from terrorist attacks.” As the legal challenges began to mount and protesters gathered at major airports, Yates announced that the Justice Department would not be defending it.
In response, Trump fired her.
“I never expected — and, in fact, did not want — to end my 27 years with the Department of Justice being fired,” Yates said, looking relaxed opposite Brown in a very unbureaucratic leather jacket. “But at same time, I felt like to have done anything other than what I did, in making the decision that I did with respect to the travel ban, would have betrayed all those 27 years prior to that.”
In two weeks — on April 25 — the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments concerning the legality of President Trump’s travel ban, a landmark hearing which will require justices to weigh, as the New York Times has noted, presidential power against individual rights, national security priorities “against the need to protect individuals from discrimination based on their religious beliefs or national origin.”
This ban has undergone several alterations since Yates was terminated—“We’re on travel ban 3.0 now,” she said—but she remains skeptical of its purpose. “They’ve done a better job in some ways of narrowing the scope of this travel ban, of laying out a purported a national security reason for it. I’m still concerned, though, that it’s infected by the same animus that infected the first one, which is the president’s articulated desire to effectuate a Muslim ban.”
Guided by Brown, Yates offered her opinion on a range of hot-button issues currently confronting American politics, including the Mueller probe, Jim Comey, Attorney General Jeff Session and Rod Rosenstein’s decision to sign off on the FBI raid of Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s office earlier this week. She was often interrupted by rounds of applause—and, at least once, a standing ovation.
ON COMEY LIKENING TRUMP TO A MOB BOSS
“Well, that’s a very colorful description that Jim has there for the president,” Yates said with a smile. “Look, I didn’t have as long a personal interaction with President Trump as director Comey did, but I have observed from outside, as a citizen—as all of you have—that he seems to view the Department of Justice as his own personal lawyers, to carry out his wishes rather than being representatives of the people of United States … That’s a real problem.”
SHOULD TRUMP ANSWER ROBERT MUELLER’S QUESTIONS?
“This is the president of the United States,” Yates said. “He raised his hand and said he wanted to be the leader of our country, and he asked us to entrust him with that … And so it seems to me when the questions are so important here — it’s about a foreign adversary attacking our democracy, and if he or members of his campaign were part of it — I don’t understand how he would have the moral authority to lead this country if he didn’t answer those questions.”
ON THE POSSIBILITY OF TRUMP FIRING MUELLER
“It feels like we’re teetering on the brink of the demise of the rule of law,” Yates said.
She believes Trump would fire Mueller if he could do so and get away with it — but what should be of equal concern to Americans, she cautioned, is the idea that he might fire Rod Rosenstein instead. “The deputy attorney general — the DAG, as it’s commonly called — actually controls the scope of the investigation for the special counsel,” Yates explained. “And so Mueller has to come to the DAG before he takes any big steps, and that includes searches or charges.”
If Rosenstein was fired, a replacement DAG could fundamentally change direction — and “do it in secret,” Yates told the audience.
ON ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS
Yates and Attorney General Jeff Session have a history of conflict. In 2015, during Yates’ confirmation hearing for deputy attorney general, Sessions — then a senator for Alabama — grilled her on whether she was prepared to “say no” to the president (meaning President Obama). Last year, Yates then publicly criticized him for “stoking fear” and using “harsh, indiscriminate use of mandatory minimum drug sentences,” regardless of the facts.
“From a policy standpoint, I disagree with many, if not most, of the decisions that Attorney General Sessions is making,” Yates told the audience in Lincoln Center, reaffirming her position.
But she is glad he recused himself “when he should have” from the Russian investigation, she said, “and there have been other steps that he has taken that has reflected a respect for the rule of law. And so, while I disagree on a policy standpoint, I’m kind of pulling for him right now with the respect to the Russian investigation. Because if he is replaced, it will be, in my view, for no other reason than to put someone in place who can control the special counsel.”
ON REPUBLICAN INTRANSIGENCE
“There are lots of policies of this administration with which I disagree,” Yates said. “But elections have consequences, and you have to expect there’s going to be a change in policies. But it’s the all-out assault on democratic institutions and norms that you don’t expect” — and that is far more dangerous, in her view. This is what she has found so disappointing: “That there have been so few Republicans who have been willing to step up and say, ‘No, there’s a line here and we believe in the rule of law, we believe in a free press, we believe in independent courts.’”
ON THE DAMAGE BEING INFLICTED BY THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION
“The institutions are holding in the sense that courts are still carrying out their obligations, despite the assault from the president trying to undermine the legitimacy of individual judges and the judicial system generally,” Yates said.
The problem is one of public confidence: “They lose confidence in the system, and where does that leave us in terms of the next administration?”
Since the defiant act that led to her firing, Yates has pushed back repeatedly against President Trump in a very public way. Just last week, Trump tweeted that the Justice Department and FBI are “an embarrassment to the country.” Yates tweeted back that “they deserve better than this.”
But she is careful to separate her own combative stance from that of her former colleagues. “I know a lot of the folks at the department of justice and the FBI,” she said. “I’ve worked with them for many, many years. These are really dedicated public servants. They don’t view themselves as part of the ‘resistance.’ They view themselves as committed to the rule of law, to applying the law to the facts, and calling it like they see it without any kind of political agenda. And that’s what we should want them to do.”
ON THE “NEW NORMAL”
“Is this the new normal?” Brown asked of Trump’s chaotic presidency.
“Well, I think that’s up to us,” Yates replied. “We can’t control what President Trump does, but we can control how we respond to it.” If in our fatigue we let it slide without comment, “then we’re going to be the ones responsible for having this continue to be the new normal.”
ON WHAT SHE IS MOST PROUD OF IN HER CAREER
Yates takes pride in two things, she said: “One, in those everyday cases I did when I was a line prosecutor, or what I oversaw as U.S. attorney, that we tried to make sure we were always fair in what we did. That it wasn’t just to win, but that we were treating people fairly.”
And two: “During time I was deputy attorney general, I worked really hard on criminal justice reform, whether it was sentencing reform or advocating in the Senate, or working with President Obama on the clemency initiative to adjust really disproportionate sentences.”
Prison reform is a personal passion, Yates said, “and we instituted some really significant changes, like building a semi-autonomous school district in the federal bureau of prisons, so that people can get the education they need to be able to be successful when they come out.” Indeed, she saw this is a moral obligation: “And so I’m always so perplexed with those programs are panned. Folks don’t understand that the only way to have truly safe communities is to invest in people on front end to prevent crime.”
ON RUNNING FOR OFFICE
“You know, I’ve been asked about running for office, and I clearly do feel drawn to public service,” Yates said with another smile. “But I kind of feel like most people who run for office have always wanted to do that.” She doesn’t have the same burning drive — though her husband has asked her to leave the door open anyway. “But I have a hard time seeing that.”
Watch highlights and the full video of the conversation at the top of this story.
Additional reporting by Karen Compton.
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