WASHINGTON — Sally Yates — who was fired for refusing to defend President Donald Trump’s travel ban less than two weeks after he took office — spoke at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night, bringing full circle the first of the numerous legal battles and clashes with career government officials that have defined Trump’s first term.
Yates was fired as acting attorney general on Jan. 30, 2017, after she directed DOJ lawyers not to defend Trump’s travel ban executive order in court. In her remarks at the DNC on Tuesday evening, she said Trump’s “shameful and unlawful Muslim travel ban ... was the start of his relentless attacks on our democratic institutions and countless dedicated public servants.”
“From the moment President Trump took office, he’s used his position to benefit himself rather than our country. He’s trampled the rule of law, trying to weaponize our Justice Department to attack his enemies and protect his friends,” Yates said.
It’s not the first time Yates has spoken publicly to criticize Trump, but it marked her highest-profile political appearance since leaving the Justice Department. Earlier this month, she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to defend the FBI’s investigation in late 2016 and early 2017 into Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. During her brief tenure as acting attorney general, Yates had warned then–White House counsel Don McGahn about Flynn’s contacts with a senior Russian official.
Yates was a career federal prosecutor for more than two decades when former president Barack Obama appointed her in 2010 to serve as a US attorney in Georgia, and then in 2015 to serve as deputy attorney general, the department’s number two official. When Trump took office and then–attorney general Loretta Lynch left, Yates stepped in to serve as acting attorney general until the Senate could confirm Trump’s nominee, Jeff Sessions.
Less than two weeks after Trump was sworn in, Yates was out. On Jan. 30, then–White House press secretary Sean Spicer announced via Twitter that “Sally Yates has been relieved.”
Three days earlier, Trump had signed an executive order that restricted immigration from a group of Muslim-majority countries; as a presidential candidate, he had pledged to block Muslims from entering the United States.
The executive order was immediately challenged in court, and multiple federal judges across the country entered injunctions blocking it from taking effect. Yates sent a message to department staff saying that DOJ would not defend the president’s action in court “unless and until I become convinced that it is appropriate to do so.”
“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,” Yates wrote at the time.
After Trump removed Yates from office, Dana Boente, a US attorney in Virginia, was appointed to serve as acting attorney general, and the Justice Department resumed its defense of the travel ban in court. Federal judges repeatedly struck down the January 2017 order and a successive attempt; the US Supreme Court ultimately allowed a more limited version of the travel ban to take effect in June 2018.
Post-firing, Yates landed at a private law firm, King & Spalding. Her colleagues now include a fellow former Trump administration official even more familiar than she is with bearing the brunt of presidential criticism — former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who oversaw special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.