Sally Yates Defended The Rule Of Law And Donald Trump Fired Her For It

The Trump administration does not care for for basic norms and the GOP is complicit in attacking them

Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“Do you understand that in this political world there will be people calling, demanding, pushing, insisting on things that they do not know what they’re asking for, and could, indeed, be corrosive of the rule of law, could diminish the respect the Department of Justice has, could diminish, um, the rule of law in the United States?”

“You have to watch out, because people will be asking you to do things that 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?”

— Jeff Sessions questions Sally Yates (March 24, 2015)

On March 24, 2015, at the Senate confirmation hearing for President Obama’s pick for Deputy Attorney General, Sally Yates, Senator Jeff Sessions pressed Yates on whether she would be willing to defy the president to uphold the rule of law. 679 days later, Yates showed that she was. On Monday, acting Attorney General Sally Yates refused to enforce President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban because was not “convinced that the Executive Order is lawful”.

The executive order has not been faring well in court. Over the weekend, judges in Brooklyn, Boston, Seattle, and Alexandria, Virginia issued a stay on deportations of people who arrived in the United States on entry documents they obtained before the ban.

The order, which Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani is on record as saying is a legal attempt to implement a “Muslim ban”, will likely face more legal trouble in the coming days. The Brooklyn judge, Ann Donnelly, said there was a “strong likelihood” that the ban violated due process and equal protection under the Constitution. As Bloomberg reports, a 1984 Supreme Court ruling found that the Establishment Clause of of the US Constitution’s First Amendment means “that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.”

Even if the Trump-Pence administration can somehow successfully argue that the ban does not target Muslims specifically but people from seven majority-Muslim countries in general, it will still be legally dubious. It seems to violate the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act which states “no person shall receive any preference or priority or be discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of the person’s race, sex, nationality, place of birth or place of residence.”

Although Yates’s seems legally correct in her decision to defy the executive order, President Trump sacked her, and replaced her with Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who will serve on an interim basis until Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is confirmed by the Senate.

The White House released a statement that claimed Yates “betrayed the Department of Justice.” It also called her an “Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.” The statement also claimed that the Sessions nomination is “being wrongly held up by Democrat senators for strictly political reasons.”

The Justice Department is supposed to be independent from the White House but it is very unusual for an attorney general to openly defy a president — and even more unusual for a president to fire an attorney general. The controversy has drawn comparisons to the so-called Saturday Night Massacre of 1973. In that case, then-Attorney General Eliot Richardson refused to follow President Richard Nixon’s order that special prosecutor Archibald Cox (who was investigating the Watergate scandal) be fired. Richardson resigned — and when his replacement, acting Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, also refused to follow Nixon’s order, the President fired Ruckelshaus.

The Muslim ban and the firing of Yates seems to have reinvigorated Senate Democrats’ opposition to the Sessions nomination. In the Senate on Tuesday, Democrats managed to delay Judiciary Committee action until Wednesday. In questions that echoed Sessions’s concerns regarding the Yates nomination in 2015, Senators cast doubt on Sessions’s independence from Trump and his willingness to uphold the rule of law in defiance of the president.

Some Democrats pointed out that Stephen Miller, who reportedly helped write the Muslim ban, was previously a longtime aide to Sessions. The top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Dianne Feinstein, asked, “Will he support and defend these broad and disruptive executive orders? Will he carry out and enforce the president’s actions that may very well violate the Constitution?”

Trump protested the Democrats moves on Twitter, but he just has to be patient. With a Republican majority in the Senate, there’s little Democratic Senators can do beside slowing down the confirmation process.

Sally Yates’s refusal to follow Trump’s orders shows that the resistance in Washington officialdom will not be limited to Congress. There are signs that Yates’s actions may just be a small part of wide-spread opposition to Trump from within the US government. A State Department “Dissent Cable” attacking Trump’s Muslim ban has drawn 1,000 signatures.

News // Donald Trump / Justice / Law / Politics