New York Times
May 24, 2017
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In a fierce, sometimes personal speech, Sally Q. Yates, the acting attorney general fired by President Trump for refusing to defend his travel ban, told the graduating class at Harvard Law School on Wednesday that her decision was a surprising but crucial moment when “law and conscience intersected.”
Ms. Yates has become a hero to many Democrats for standing up to the president on one of his first and most contentious policy initiatives. Mr. Trump’s supporters regard her as just one of many holdovers from the Obama administration who have publicly and privately tried to sabotage his agenda.
Her tenure as acting attorney general was supposed to be uneventful, Ms. Yates said during ceremonies the day before commencement. “Everything was to stay status quo.” Her former chief of staff had jokingly told her there would be time for, in her words, “a lot of long, boozy lunches.”
But “the defining moments in our lives often don’t come with advance warning,” she said. “They can arise in scenarios we would have never expected, and don’t come with the luxury of a lot of time for you to go inside yourself for some serious introspection.”
She was on her way to the airport to catch a flight home to Atlanta on a Friday in January, she said, when she heard news reports that the president had signed an executive order restricting travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
“This was the first we had even heard of it,” Ms. Yates said of the ban. Within hours, the Justice Department was going to have to defend the executive order in courts around the country. By Monday, she realized that she had to take a position on the order’s constitutionality.
“I do think it’s illustrative of an unexpected moment where the law and conscience intersected,” she said.
The Justice Department normally defends presidential action by default, and the department’s Office of Legal Counsel declared the ban legal. But Ms. Yates said that narrow analysis did not consider the president’s own words, which described the ban explicitly in terms of religion. She told Congress this month that she saw no honest argument to make in defense of the ban.
She said she grappled with whether to resign, as some have argued that she should have done. She told colleagues that quitting would only punt a difficult decision to her successor.
“I believed then, and believe now, that resigning would have protected my personal integrity, but it would not have protected the integrity of the Department of Justice,” she said. The department is not “just another law firm, and this wasn’t just any legal issue.”
Ms. Yates, speaking on the lawn in front of the law school library, said she had wanted the words in her speech to be “commensurate with the occasion.”
She said she was mindful that it was the bicentennial of the school’s founding and that for 200 years its graduates — including her former boss, Loretta E. Lynch, attorney general in the Obama administration — had been changing the trajectory of the country and the world.
Taking a risk “means that you have to be willing to be wrong,” she said. “And that can sometimes be a lonely place to be. But I’m hoping that fear of being wrong won’t keep you from acting.”
“Because inaction, doing nothing, or simply going along, that’s a decision, too. and it seems the times in my life that I haven’t acted that’s when I’ve regretted it the most.”
She advised the graduates not to take the safe course. In what seemed to be a veiled swipe at her former boss, the president, she said: “Doing your job means you are not simply a reflection of someone else’s talents or opinions. You’re the person to whom a leader turns when he or she needs to hear the truth.”
President Trump fired Ms. Yates 10 days into his administration after she ordered Justice Department lawyers not to defend his first immigration order suspending entry to the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries as well as for refugees.
Ms. Yates’s order was a remarkable rebuke by a government official of a sitting president and came at the end of a turbulent three days that began with Mr. Trump’s signing of his executive order. The action stranded travelers around the world, led to protests around the country and created alarm inside the bureaucracy.
Ms. Yates said her determination in deciding not to defend the order included questions not only about the order’s lawfulness, but also of whether it was a “wise or just” policy.
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