The former acting attorney general who was fired by President Trump for refusing to defend his travel ban told a U.S. Senate committee she has no regrets.
“I did my job,” Sally Yates told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a hearing Monday.
Yates authored a letter on Jan. 30 while still leading the Justice Department stating she was “not convinced” that a Trump executive order limiting travel and immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries was “lawful.” The letter instructed the Department of Justice not to defend the president’s order.
Trump fired Yates in response, with the White House saying in a statement that she had “betrayed the Department of Justice.”
Yates saw it differently, as she told the Judiciary Committee in a hearing that was focused on the issue of Russian meddling into the 2016 election but which pivoted at times to the saga of Yates’ firing and the travel ban.
Yates told senators Monday that the Justice Department’s role is larger than just to defend a president’s actions.
“In this instance, all arguments have to be based on truth,” she said. “We’re not just a law firm. We’re the Department of Justice.”
In a particularly lively exchange with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Yates said the Office of Legal Counsel’s responsibilities are narrower than hers were as acting attorney general.
“They do not look outside the face of the document,” she said.
In contrast, she said, “it was appropriate for us to look at the intent behind the president’s actions, and the intent is laid out in his statements.”
Analyzing the intent “is part of what led to our conclusion that it was not lawful,” she said.
Yates also noted during her testimony that “several court decisions since that time” have questioned the legality of the Jan. 27 travel ban and looked at Trump’s intent behind the order.
The administration replaced the first executive order several weeks later with a modified travel ban.
But a federal judge in Hawaii temporarily blocked the second order in March, writing that his decision was informed by Trump’s campaign rhetoric about Muslims and statements by some of his advisers that the second ban did not substantially differ from the contested original.
Cruz’s interaction with Yates during the hearing displayed their sharply different views of the travel ban.
The senator cited the Immigration and Nationality Act’s granting to the president the authority to suspend the entry of aliens to the U.S.
But Yates said there is an additional passage in that law stating “no person shall receive preference or be discriminated against in issuance of a visa because of race, nationality or place of birth.”
She added that her concern was not primarily with the immigration law. “It rather was a constitutional concern, whether or not this — the executive order here — violated the Constitution, specifically with the Establishment Clause and equal protection and due process,” she said.
At another point in the hearing, Yates summed up her position: “I did my job the best way I knew how. I looked at this [executive order]. I looked at the law, I talked with the folks at the Department of Justice, gathered them all to get their views and their input, and I did my job.”