Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates is mostly known for two things: Refusing to defend President Donald Trump’s first executive order on Muslim immigration, an order which several courts enjoined from enforcement and the White House eventually withdrew; and warning White House counsel Don McGahn about various activities of then-national security adviser Mike Flynn, whom Trump fired weeks later.
This is what made Sen. Ted Cruz’s attempted grilling of Yates at Monday’s hearing seem so strange. All Cruz’s aggressive line of questioning did was serve to show how right Yates had been about everything.
There is a procedural argument to be had about when an attorney general should decline to make an argument in court that the president wants made. (Not one that rises to the level of worrying about whether the AG has usurped the president’s executive authority, I think, since the president has a remedy if the AG won’t do what he wants — he can fire her, as he did here.)
But if Yates’ break with Trump on the travel ban was merely a disagreement over a “policy decision” rather than over whether the policy was lawful, as Cruz posits, why did federal courts keep blocking the order, and why did Trump withdraw the order instead of seeking to defend it in the courts?
Of course, this hearing wasn’t even supposed to be about the “Muslim ban” executive order. It was nominally about Russian interference in the 2016 election, including concerns that the Russian government could have compromised Flynn, concerns Yates raised with McGahn during Trump’s first week in office.
I think a purpose of Republicans’ questioning of Yates about the order was to defend the White House from the conclusion that they recklessly ignored Yates’ guidance about Flynn. If Yates was a partisan actor hostile to Trump, why should the White House have been expected to take seriously her advice about presidential appointments?
White House press secretary Sean Spicer made this argument Tuesday, saying Yates is “someone who is not exactly a supporter of the president’s agenda” as part of his explanation of why the White House did not act immediately on Yates’ warning about Flynn.
But here, too, Yates’ correctness is borne out by the president’s own actions — once it became publicly known that Flynn had discussed sanctions against Russia with its ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, contrary to the public statements of Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials, Trump fired Flynn.
In both cases, Trump ended up following Yates’ guidance, albeit belatedly. He should have listened to her, despite the fact that she was a Democratic appointee.
All Cruz and Spicer have achieved is to show that Yates is a person who repeatedly and correctly stood up to an unpopular president, and who got her way in the end. They are doing their part to help launch her political career, should she want one.
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