“The acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement.
The fast-moving events Monday thrust Yates into a standoff with the new president and into the national spotlight. Appointed by President Barack Obama, Yates had been running Trump’s Justice Department until his attorney general nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions, is confirmed. Before that, she had spent years defending Obama administration policies, championing changes to the criminal justice system and curtailing the federal government’s use of private prisons.
Monday, Yates told Justice Department lawyers not to make legal arguments defending Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees, launching herself into the biggest controversy of the opening days of Trump’s presidency.
“My responsibility is to ensure that the position of 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,” Yates said in a letter to department lawyers.
Hours later, she was gone, a dramatic end to her lengthy career in the department.
Born in Atlanta in 1960, Yates attended the University of Georgia both as an undergrad and a law student — becoming what the home of the Bulldogs calls a “double dawg.”
Yates started at the end of the 1980s, working as assistant US attorney in the Northern District of Georgia. She worked her way up in a series of cases the DOJ described as including white-collar fraud and political corruption.
In 1996, Yates aided with the prosecution of Eric Rudolph, who pleaded guilty to bombing Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta during the Olympic ceremonies.
In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed her to run the local US attorney’s office, the first time a woman had reached the position there.
She subsequently climbed the DOJ ladder almost to the very top. When former Attorney General Eric Holder informed Obama of his intention to leave the office, Obama tapped Loretta Lynch for attorney general and Yates for deputy.
Unlike Lynch, who faced a divided Senate for confirmation, Yates made it through her Senate grilling with wide, bipartisan support. Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue — both Republicans — spoke on her behalf.
She did face some pushback from conservative corners, however. Sessions, an Alabama Republican, was among those to question her sharply during her Judiciary Committee hearing, and he ultimately voted against her confirmation.
That final step points to the current irony facing Washington: The Trump administration asked Yates to stay on as attorney general after the inauguration until Sessions, Trump’s nominee, could take over.
Yates accepted the request, and that meant Trump would have someone leading DOJ who is well outside of his ideological mold.
The current clash was set up by Trump’s decision to move ahead with the immigration executive order — suspending the refugee program and temporarily halting travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries — before Sessions was installed.
The day after Trump’s order came down, a federal judge blocked part of the order. More legal challenges mounted, and Yates instructed the department not to defend the administration from them.
Monday night, she was hand-delivered a letter from the White House that ended her Justice Department career.