Truthdigger of the Week: Sally Yates, Fired for Defying Trump's Immigration Order
Will Americans prevail over the Trump administration if and when it violates the U.S. Constitution and threatens public safety?
The answer depends on whether the opposition online and in the streets has courageous and independent-minded allies in public office — people who hold the power to check President Trump, his appointees and any Little Eichmanns (named for the Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann) at work in the U.S. government: amoral bureaucrats whose actions may appear harmless on a case-by-case basis but who collectively embody, enact and prop up the policies of destructive governments and other kinds of organizations.
After the president on Jan. 27 signed an executive order preventing people from seven Muslim-majority countries — including green card holders — from entering the United States, then-acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates instructed Justice Department lawyers not to defend the order against any challenges in court.
“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,” Yates wrote in a letter to the department. “I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful.”
On Monday night, Trump responded by firing Yates, who had been appointed by President Obama. The White House released a statement saying she “betrayed” the department and was “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”
Trump’s order sparked massive demonstrations at airports in major U.S. cities in support of refugees and immigrants. Legal experts call the order an unconstitutional curb on liberty; others worry it will provoke violent reactions, which the administration will seize upon as a justification for expanding police powers.
Within a day after the order, a federal judge in the New York borough of Brooklyn blocked part of the ban, preventing the government from deporting some arrivals though stopping short of letting them into the country (that is, detaining them). One week later, a federal judge in Seattle, who was appointed by George W. Bush, placed a temporary halt on the ban. The next day, the Department of Homeland Security said it would comply with the judge’s order.
Set to take over the Justice Department from Yates is Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, 69, a lawyer whom Truthdig contributor Bill Blum wrote about in November, saying Sessions has “made copious statements, taken actions and, in his instance, cast votes that can be described in a single word: racist.”
Shortly after Trump fired Yates, footage from her 2015 Senate confirmation hearing emerged. Remarkably, Sessions is seen questioning her whether, “If the views the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?”
Yates foreshadowed her decision of last week, replying affirmatively: “Senator, I believe that 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.”
In The Guardian, Norman L. Eisen and Richard W. Painter, who introduce themselves as “lawyers who counseled presidents and senior officials of both parties on their Constitutional and ethical duties,” wrote that “Yates demonstrated the independence that Sessions sought — ‘you need to say no’ — and she lost her job because of it.” They continued: “[W]e believe her actions were lawful and right.”
Pointing out that Yates took an oath of office to “support and defend the Constitution,” including sometimes “from government attacks,” Eisen and Painter observe that Trump “repeatedly said on the campaign trail that he would ban Muslims from entering the United States. [Once president, he] also said he would exempt Christian refugees from the order and, in fact, the order exempts persons of ‘minority religions’ within each of the seven countries.” Thus, Trump’s move violates the First Amendment prohibition on favoring or discriminating against any religion.
“The order is also arbitrary,” they continue. “Few terrorist attacks have been perpetrated inside the United States by nationals of the seven countries on the list, and none have resulted in deaths. By contrast, nationals of countries not on the list — including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — have perpetrated far more acts of terrorism in the United States, causing substantial fatalities, including in the attacks on September 11, 2001.”
“All of this flies in the face of the US Constitution,” they write. “Our founding legal document of course prohibits the government from denying the liberty of people to come and go from the United States without due process of law (at least with respect to persons protected under that document, many of whom are affected here).”
Yates’ firing ended her 27-year Justice Department career. Even a Wikipedia editor — for a brief moment, at least — exalted her as “a god damned American hero.”
For righteously standing up to power, Sally Yates is our Truthdigger of the Week.