God bless Sally Yates’s America, where justice is a function of both law and morality.
Many Americans first heard of the acting attorney general on Monday, when she instructed Justice Department lawyers not to defend President Donald Trump’s executive order aimed at making it harder for many Muslims to enter the United States.
More learned her name that night when Trump fired her and released a third-grade-level statement accusing her of having “betrayed the Department of Justice” and being “very weak on illegal immigration.”
All Yates betrayed is that she has a much better sense of what makes America great than Trump and his crony phonies. It took her only a few sentences to explain why our country was a beacon of hope and the envy of the Western world until Jan. 20, 2017.
“My responsibility is to ensure that 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,” she wrote. “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.”
As noted in her instructions to Justice lawyers, Yates hinted that the statements administration officials had issued around the implementation of the executive order made clear that it was designed to screen out Muslims — a policy at odds with constitutional principles.
The easier path
It would have been much easier for Yates to kowtow to Trump and White House political strategist Steve Bannon, a race-baiting, self-styled geopolitical genius who has turned the West Wing into a chaotic and paranoid beacon of hate. She could have just followed orders and not made a spectacle of herself and the president’s order.
But to do that, as so many government officials have and will, would have been dangerously banal.
Less than two weeks into its existence, the Trump administration is still a far cry from the Third Reich. But its insensitive echo of deniers in failing to mention Jews in a Holocaust remembrance statement — and the subsequent scapegoating of a Jewish staffer for the omission — is hardly confidence-inspiring, especially given the rank anti-Semitism that permeated Trump’s base.
Trump isn’t a dictator, but he appears to emulate them. He cares for the law only to the extent that it can be bent and rewritten to serve his ends.
As Hannah Arendt wrote in “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann “not only obeyed orders; he obeyed the law.” As Yates suggested, justice is not only a matter of legality but of morality.
And this president — who pays no taxes, gives other people’s money to charity, brags about sexually assaulting women, and foments racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia — has shown even less regard for morality.
A lost concept
Maybe justice is a concept lost on Trump because he has never experienced it, having become wealthy, famous and powerful with a thumb always on his side of the scale, right up until the day he won the presidency with 3 million votes fewer than his rival.
Whatever the case, Yates, who was an Obama appointee working temporary duty until her replacement could be named, was not the first administration official to be tested by a raft of White House policies that are ruthless, undervetted and offensive to long-held American constitutional principles.
And, in a West Wing that likes to promote “alternative facts,” you can be sure she won’t be the last.
It was well within Trump’s rights to fire Yates and replace her with a new acting attorney general to reverse her instructions and defend his order in court. There’s always someone willing to suck up to power to advance his or her own career. Their names will be footnotes in history.
But Yates stood up for what she thought was right, even knowing that it would likely thrust her into the spotlight, lead to her firing, and potentially affect her ability to be confirmed for a higher job by a future Senate. It took guts, and she’s rightly being canonized by those who worry about the Trump administration’s use — or abuse — of executive power.
We can only hope that men and women of conscience continue to betray the edicts of a president who has shown no evidence that he believes the American precepts of legality and morality are of greater value to our nation than any and all of the items on an agenda that most voters rejected.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.