Both President Donald Trump and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates could have taken different paths on their way to Monday night’s showdown. That’s when Trump fired Yates after she instructed Justice Department attorneys to no longer defend his executive order halting the refugee program and banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Yates had the right to object to the order, and Trump had the right to fire her. Much more alarming was the ominous tone in the language used to announce her dismissal. The White House statement said Yates “betrayed” the Justice Department.
Accusing Yates of betrayal conveys an intolerance of independence for a department whose integrity, reputation and effectiveness depend on it being independent. It’s yet another insight into the frightening thinking of Trump’s administration, that either you’re with us or you’re the enemy.
The attorney general is the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, period. We see no evidence that Trump or his advisers understand this. What message are they sending to FBI director James Comey, whose agency is investigating allegations of Russians involved in the election and contacting the Trump campaign? Now the nation faces the disturbing prospect of U.S. attorneys being viewed as political tools, not independent instruments of justice.
The White House also made clear its disrespect for process in its botched rollout of Trump’s order. Congressional aides reportedly helped with its drafting but were pledged to secrecy and did not tell their bosses. Key officials, including some Cabinet members and nominees, were briefed only as the order was signed and announced. The administration delights in delivering shocks. But trampling process destroys the underpinnings of a system that has helped make America great. No one in Trump’s inner sanctum seems to get that, either. Nor do they understand they are undermining themselves, before another battle erupts over Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.
Yates, who worked in the Department of Justice since 1989, could have expressed her objections by resigning. Trump could have appointed another department attorney to handle the order. But playing a game of what-if distracts from the central point: The nation needs an independent attorney general who can disagree with the White House.
That leaves us very concerned about Trump’s nominee for the position. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions has conveyed little sense he will be independent from the White House. He campaigned with Trump. If confirmed, he will face decisions about whether to name a special prosecutor — for example, on the Russian matters on the FBI’s radar or various business conflicts of interest involving Trump. What will Sessions do?
During the 2015 confirmation hearings for Yates’ promotion to the No. 2 spot in the Justice Department, Sessions asked her whether she would be — and encouraged her to be — independent of then-President Barack Obama. But he despised Obama and admires Trump.
An independent attorney general was important to Sessions then, and must be his credo now. His integrity, and that of the Justice Department, is at stake. — The editorial board