What You Should Know About the Public Servant Trump Just Fired, Sally Yates

Sally Yates, who served as Deputy Attorney General since 2015, was asked by the Trump administration to be the Acting Attorney General until their nominee—Jeff Sessions—was confirmed. Yesterday she issued a memo to the top lawyers in the Justice Department directing them to not defend Trump’s executive order on immigrants and refugees as long as she was in that position. You can read her memo here.

By the end of the day, Trump fired Yates for taking that action, accusing her of “betraying the Justice Department”  and suggesting that she is “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.” While some have compared this to Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” it might not rise to that level—but it certainly sends a chilling message to anyone in the federal bureaucracy who might contemplate resisting the administration.

Yates is being hailed as a hero in many circles for standing up against the Trump administration’s odious executive order. So it might be informative to take a look at some important points throughout her career in public service.

Most notably, after being in private practice, Yates was hired in 1989 by none other than former Congressman Bob Barr (one of the Republican leaders of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton) to be the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. During her term there, she was the lead prosecutor in the case of the Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph.

In 2010, President Obama nominated Yates to be U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of Georgia and then in 2015 she was confirmed by the Senate as Deputy AG with a vote of 84-12. During her tenure in that position, Yates took the lead on several important initiatives.

  • She was the administration’s lead negotiator with Congress on attempts to pass criminal justice reform.
  • She announced the phase-out of the federal government’s use of private prisons.
  • She advocated for re-entry services for federal prisoners in order to reduce recidivism.
  • She was tapped by President Obama to get rid of the problems causing a backlog in his Clemency Initiative.

In other words, whether serving under Republican or Democratic administrations, Sally Yates has been the consummate public servant with a demonstrated commitment to justice and public safety for all Americans.

But perhaps the most poignant moment of her career—given what transpired yesterday—was her questioning for Senate confirmation of her nomination to be Deputy Attorney General. As Steve Benen reports, a particular line of inquiry came from the man who has been nominated by Trump to serve as Attorney General—Senator Jeff Sessions.

SESSIONS: Well. you have to watch out, because people will be asking you to do things you just need to say ‘no’ about. Do you think the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that’s improper? [„,] If the views the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?

YATES: Senator, I believe the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution, and to give their independent legal advice to the president.

Yates declared her “obligation to follow the law and the Constitution” under questioning by the man that is being proclaimed the “intellectual godfather” of the kind of executive order she refused to defend. Such is the sorry state of affairs in the era of Donald Trump.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.