The erosion of democratic norms and public trust under President Donald Trump’s administration threatens U.S. democratic institutions, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates said at a Wednesday evening event cosponsored by the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service and The New York Times.
Yates said she is worried by the “relentless attack on democratic institutions and norms” coming from the administration, which she said may result in a long-term decline in public confidence in government. These concerns, she said, are more serious than typical partisan disagreements.
“With this sort of barrage that we experience every day, in a defense mechanism if nothing else, we tend to normalize this, because it’s kind of exhausting to stay in a state of constant outrage,” Yates said.
Yates pointed to Trump’s attempts to discourage the prosecution of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who faced charges for profiling Latinos in July 2017 as an interference with the justice process.
“Whether that actually has an impact on the decisions that are made at DOJ or not, the damage is done by the public’s loss of confidence that the Department of Justice is acting independently,” Yates said.
Yates, a distinguished lecturer at Georgetown University Law Center, served as deputy attorney general under former President Barack Obama and briefly served as acting attorney general in Trump’s administration. Trump fired Yates in January 2017 after she refused to defend his first travel ban executive order, which restricted travel from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days.
Yates recalled her short time in the Trump administration at Wednesday’s event: She said the Justice Department had just 72 hours to analyze the ban’s legality and anticipate legal challenges, because the rollout of the order was not coordinated with government agencies.
Once she and her team decided the travel ban discriminated against Muslims, she knew she could not defend the order, Yates explained.
“It became apparent to me that to defend this, we would have to advance an argument that the travel ban had absolutely nothing to do with religion,” Yates said. “That meant, from our perspective, that we would have to advance a defense based on a pretext, we would be doing that not just on some tangential issue, but on a core, defining value of our country: religious freedom.”
The event was moderated by New York Times reporter and adjunct Georgetown professor Matt Apuzzo. Apuzzo asked Yates if she had considered resigning her position when she disagreed with the ban; Yates replied it was worth attempting to fight the executive order from within the department for as long as she could.
“Do I just resign and say, ‘OK, I’m not going to be part of this,’ or do I direct the department not to defend?” Yates said. “From my view, that would have protected my personal integrity, but it wouldn’t have protected the integrity of the Department of Justice.”
Though Yates condemned Trump’s disregard for democratic norms, she declined to comment on the legality of his interference or his role, if any, in the ongoing investigation about Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Yates defended the DOJ against Trump allies’ accusations that the department committed abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to obtain a surveillance warrant for Carter Page, who had previously served as an aide to Trump’s presidential campaign.
The FBI’s surveillance of Page was approved by a FISA court because of Page’s contacts with Russian individuals, according to declassified summaries of the FISA order. The circumstances of the surveillance have come under fire from Republican members of Congress and Trump himself.
DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced March 28 he will investigate the matter.
Yates said she has no reason to suspect improper behavior in the FBI or the DOJ, however, because of the nature of the individuals who work for both institutions.
“The career men and women at the DOJ and FBI are the ones who initiate FISAs, not from the top, but from the bottom up,” Yates said. “They take the obligations they have incredibly seriously.”
Noting the widespread recognition Yates received for her defiance of the Trump administration — from praise in the media to “Sally Yates 2020” t-shirts — Apuzzo asked Yates if she considered herself a leader of the resistance against Trump and his administration.
Yates said she viewed standing up to the administration as just doing her job.
“I don’t view myself as a hero at all, and this is not in an ‘aw shucks’ kind of way. I did my job. That’s not being a hero,” Yates said. “Am I troubled by some of the actions of the administration? Yes. Do I speak out, in selective ways, about those? Sure, I do. I think that this is not a time for us to admire the issue, but rather to stand up and speak out about those things that we think are wrong or unjust.”