On Monday, President Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she refused to defend his controversial immigration order in court. Yates, a holdover from the Obama era, said she was not “convinced that the Executive Order is lawful.”
Trump’s team said Yates “betrayed” the department. But back in 2015, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) — Trump’s current pick for attorney general — encouraged Yates to be ready to stand up to the president. “You have to watch out,” Sessions said, “because people will be asking you to do things that you just need to say no about.”
This all came during Yates’s Senate confirmation hearing in 2015. The exchange is more than a little surreal in light of what went down this week:
Sessions: 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? A lot of people defended the [Loretta] Lynch nomination by saying well, [then-President Obama] appoints somebody who’s going to execute his views. What’s wrong with that? But if the views that the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?
Yates: Senator, I believe that 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.
Of course, in 2015, Sessions was encouraging Yates to stand up to President Obama, a president he disliked — not Trump. There’s also little reason to think Sessions will buck President Trump if he gets confirmed as attorney general. According to the Washington Post, Sessions was the driving force between the immigration order and many of Trump’s other early moves. Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon calls Sessions “the clearinghouse for policy and philosophy” in Trump’s administration.
(Credit to Michael Scarcella for originally unearthing this clip.)
- Andrew Prokop has a recap of Yates’s refusal to defend the order and subsequent firing. Trump’s new acting attorney general, Dana Boente, has ordered the department to defend the immigration order in court.
- Not everyone agrees with what Yates did. Jack Goldsmith, a Trump critic and former Department of Justice lawyer, argues that Yates’s reasoning for refusing to defend the order was unpersuasive — and that if she thought it was wrong, she should’ve just resigned.
- Meanwhile, Marty Lederman, who was deputy assistant attorney general under Obama, argues that Yates did the right thing.