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Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates last night. 

Yates was appointed by Obama to the position of Deputy Attorney General in May 2015, and served under former Attorney General Loretta Lynch. The Trump administration to asked Yates to serve as interim Attorney General until Trump’s nomination, Jeff Sessions, is confirmed. But while Yates was only due to occupy the position until Sessions takes over, Trump decided to fire her (which is substantially different from having her transition out of the role, as was expected) when she expressed dissent with his immigration ban

In a letter to her staff, Yates expressed her concerns over the legality of the executive order — though executive orders are not subject to congressional oversight, they still must be constitutional — and voiced the Department of Justice’s criticism.

“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 consistent 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.

Consequently, for as long as I am the Acting Attorney General, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense of the Executive Order, unless and until I become convinced that it is appropriate to do so.” 

This is a remarkable act; it is unusual for a government official to openly defy a sitting president. The most notable act of this in modern history was in 1973, when the attorney general and deputy attorney general refused to dismiss the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal, resulting in them being fired by Nixon (dubbed the “Saturday Night Massacre”). Yates’ dissent is audacious and noteworthy, and follows the pattern of opposition to Trump that congressional democrats have also expressed in the first ten days of his administration. 

Trump fired Yates for expressing her opposition (although, given the language, it could perhaps be more aptly described as lack-of-endorsement). A Trump aid delivered a letter notifying Yates of her termination, and Secretary of the Press Sean Spicer released a statement saying that: “Ms. Yates is an Obama administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.” 

Firing the attorney general is a big deal. Although it is a position appointed by the President, it is one which is supposed to give governmental oversight and ensure that the law is being carried out as it is intended. The attorney general is there not to protect the President, but rather the law. The attorney general is supposed to voice opposition to the President if they believe that the executive branch is carrying out illegal or unconstitutional actions. Yates voiced that the attorney general need not show allegiance to an administration or President — but rather to the US constitution. They are there to know that document inside and out and to make sure that what it outlines is enforced.

In fact, a key irony in all of this is the fact that at Yates’ 2015 Deputy Attorney General confirmation hearing before the senate, Jeff Sessions who questioned her on her ability to stand up to President Obama.

"You have to watch out because people will be asking you to do things you just need to say 'no' about," Sessions said to Yates. "Do you think the attorney general has the responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that's improper? A lot of people have defended the [Loretta] Lynch nomination, for example, by saying, 'Well [Obama] appoints somebody who's going to execute his views. What's wrong with that?'"

He then added, ”But if the views the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say 'no?'"

"Senator, I believe the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution," Yates responded, "and to give their independent legal advice to the president.” 

While we should not jump to hyperbole or the sky-is-falling-type catastrophism, it's still important to note that the firing of an attorney general is a meagerly precedented act. It could easily be interpreted as a message that disagreement and dissent with his administration will not be tolerated. What’s more, the fact that Trump chose to fire Yates and replace her with such a small amount of time before Sessions was due to transition in denotes his pettiness and inability to handle voices of opposition — a pattern consistent with his behavior as a candidate, the President-elect, and now as the sitting President.

Yates should be commended for doing her job and sticking by the principles that made her a trustworthy Deputy Attorney General and interim appointment — even when she knew it might result in consequences from the new administration. What we should perhaps focus on most intently, however, is the implications that this action carries, and the precedent that it sets for the rest of Trump’s administration.

Image source: flickr

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