Former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates said Friday during an appearance before the National Association of Women Judges in Atlanta that the White House has violated “important norms” governing the rule of law in its relationship with the U.S. Justice Department.
In an hourlong conversation with Judge Beverly Martin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit , Yates—whom President Donald Trump fired in January over her refusal to defend the his travel ban—ardently defended the historic independence of the DOJ and called on the judges and citizens to be vigilant that it remain so.
Yates also warned, “The wall between the Department of Justice and the White House has been breached.”
“It is a long-standing tradition—and an essential one to the rule of law—that the Department of Justice operates independently,” said Yates, while reflecting on her tenure as deputy attorney general during the Obama administration prior to being fired.
“At the risk of sounding preachy, the DOJ has to be able to make its decisions about investigations and prosecutions free of any political influence whatsoever,” she said. “In Democratic and Republican administrations alike, that has been a time-honored norm, a time-honored tradition that the White House has absolutely no involvement in that.”
“That means that, from my perspective, the president shouldn’t be trying to shame the attorney general for recusing from the investigation that it was frankly a no-brainer, I think, to recuse from,” Yates said, referring to the ongoing investigation of Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. “That [the president] shouldn’t be trying to goad [the attorney general] into re-initiating an investigation of a political rival or calling him up and trying to get him to drop a criminal prosecution of Sheriff [Joe] Arpaio,” the former Arizona sheriff facing criminal contempt charges associated with civil rights violations whom the president pardoned.
During her conversation with Martin, Yates said she hopes initiatives she was involved with—among them federal sentencing reform, broadening educational opportunities for federal prison inmates, and expanding ways in which female inmates can connect with their children and their families while incarcerated—might secure enough bipartisan support to survive.
Elections have consequences, Yates said, adding she’s not shocked some of the policies have changed.
“What I do take issue with is what seems like sometimes sowing fear,” she said.
Contradicting a position staked out by Attorney General Jeff Sessions about an increase in violent crime in some of the nation’s largest cities, Chicago foremost among them, Yates said, “Trying to create the impression that violent crime increases in some cities are being driven by lower sentences that are being imposed on low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, that to me is a bridge too far.”
“There is no absolutely no evidence that the increase some cities have experienced in violent crime are in any way the result of the fact that drug offenders aren’t getting enough time. I think we ought to be really careful in that debate when some start selling that kind of fear.”
Yates also spoke of her confidence in special counsel Robert Mueller, who is overseeing the Russian investigation.
“If there are crimes that should be prosecuted there that can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that felonies were committed, I am confident that Bob Mueller will bring those charges,” Yates said. “Likewise, if that evidence is not there, I am confident that Bob Mueller will not gin up a case that should’t be there just to justify his existence.”
Yates also talked about her decision to oppose Trump’s first travel ban targeting travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries. She said she first learned about the executive order from her deputy, who read it on The New York Times’ website.
Yates and her staff spent the weekend “trying to get our arms around what it was.” Yates said she soon realized the ban applied to permanent lawful residents and people with valid visas, including travelers “who were literally in the air” when the order was signed.
“I was not convinced that it was lawful or constitutional, and I also was concerned that to defend the travel ban would require me to send DOJ lawyers in to advance a defense that I did not believe was grounded in truth,” she said.
Because the order addressed one of the nation’s founding principles—religious freedom—”and we were the Department of Justice, not some private law firm defending some private litigant,” Yates said she ordered career lawyers not to defend it. She was fired a few hours later.
She said the White House delivered her termination letter to the DOJ after attempting unsuccessfully to fire her by email. “It kept bouncing back,” she said.
Yates said that, as she cleared out her office that night, word spread through the department. Staff and members of her personal security detail arrived to keep her company while she packed, she said. And when she left, “It wasn’t like I was walking out of my office by myself.”