Like a Shakespearean play filled with foreshadowing of things to come – Sally Yates eerily recited the end of her career during her attorney general confirmation hearing to the man who may soon take her place.
In the video taken in 2015, Trump AG appointee Jeff Sessions peers over his wireframe glasses resting on the tip of his nose, gently grilling Yates between spurts of southern charm, “Do you think the attorney general has a responsibility to the president if he asks for something that’s improper?” Sessions asks.
Without flinching, Yates assuredly responds, “Senator, I believe the attorney general or the deputy general has an obligation to follow the law and the constitution, and to give their independent legal advice to the president.”
Flash forward two years later to this past Monday evening – Sally Yates announces that the Justice Department would not defend Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration. Yates went on to state that the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) – whose board reviews the executive order – deemed Trump’s EO legal, the OLC’s process is limited to determining whether the executive order is properly drafted and lawful at face value.
Sally Yates was fired, by the president, for defending the Constitution. Day 10 of his tyrannical presidency: https://t.co/OBsXL7eiTq
— The Democrats (@TheDemocrats) January 31, 2017
Yates’ letter, which can be found here, stated, “My responsibility is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible, but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts. In addition, I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain constant with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right. At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the Executive Order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is lawful.”
Within three hours, the Trump’s administration fired her, releasing a statement that Yates was an Obama appointee (Trump’s team had asked her to stay on while waiting for Jeff Sessions confirmation), who was weak on boarders and very weak on immigration. Most strikingly, the Trump White House also referred to Yates’ actions as a betrayal -something that has quickly been noted as incendiary language and not considered to be presidential language.
Though Yates may have been let go during the middle of a media firestorm that has been the Trump administration legacy, her action is already being hailed as legendary. This strength of character is not out of line for Yates, who was the first female U.S. attorney in her district and championed criminal justice reform.
The debate stirs over the constitutionality of Yate’s decision vs her obligation to uphold Trump’s executive orders. Constitutional law professor at Harvard University, Laurence Tribe said, “the executive order really challenges who we are as Americans and violates important parts of the constitution….I think its an important turning point in our history and tonight is part of that extraordinary moment we are living through.”
Tribe’s sentiments were backed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who stated in a press release that, “the acting attorney general was fired for upholding the Constitution of the Untied States. What the Trump Administration calls betrayal is an American with the courage to say that the law and the Constitution come first.”
But when it comes to whether Trump had grounds to fire Yates, Constitutional law professor Josh Blackman, who teaches as the South Texas College of Law in Houston, says that it is well within the president’s rights to fire the attorney general for a disagreement with policy – if not uncommon. A move like this has only been done once before during the Nixon Watergate scandal – an incident many like Tribe are drawing parallels between.
However, Blackman goes on to caution that, “while I defend Trump’s constitutional authority to remove the acting attorney general, his message accompanying the termination warrants a careful study,” – particularly in positioning Yates as someone who betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce his executive order. Blackman believes this gross mislabeling might hinder those in the White House from feeling free to raise constitutional doubts, compromising the checks within the executive branch.
…well, duh. Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past two weeks (or the election cycle), Trump’s modus operandi has been to chaotically blow stuff up, denounce contesting voices inside and outside of his administration, and casually give small concessions to appease the masses while secretly pulling larger and potentially more dangerous strings. But that’s a different story you should read about here and here.
Of course, the sheer irony of it all really goes back to two years ago, when Jeff Sessions was oh-so-worried about executive overreach and grilled then appointee Sally Yates’ moral constitution in opposing such compromising requests.