During her 2015 confirmation hearing, Senator Jeff Sessions asked Sally Yates if she would say no to a president if he asked for something “improper.” Yates said she believes it is the Attorney General’s job to do so, although President Donald Trump fired her on January 30 for just that.
Yates was serving as the Acting Attorney General until Trump fired her for refusing to defend his immigration order in court. She was an Obama holdover, as she previously served as Deputy Attorney General under Loretta Lynch. “Ms. Yates is an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration,” the Trump Administration said in a statement. Trump called her decision a betrayal.
In her memo to Justice Department staffers, Yates wrote that she was “not convinced that the defense of the Executive Order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is lawful.”
This was all foreshadowed in Yates’ 2015 confirmation hearing thanks to a question from the Senator Trump would later nominate to be his Attorney General.
“You have to watch out because people will be asking you to do things you just need to say no about,” Sessions told Yates. “Do you think the Attorney General has the responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that’s improper?”
“Senator, I believe 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,” Yates replied.
Sessions is now Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, but the Senate has yet to approve the nomination. In his opening statement on January 10, Sessions himself made it clear that he does not see the Attorney General as a “rubber stamp” for the president.
“Over the years, you have heard me say many times that I love the Department of Justice,” Sessions said in his opening statement. “The Office of the Attorney General of the United States is not a political position, and anyone who holds it must have total fidelity to the laws and the Constitution of the United States. He or she must be committed to following the law. He or she must be willing to tell the President “no” if he overreaches. He or she cannot be a mere rubberstamp.”
After Yates was fired, Trump picked Dana Boente, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to be acting Attorney General until Sessions is confirmed.