Sally Forth

Sally Yates Is the Early Hero of the Trump Era

The one-minute-long AG floored Michael Flynn and the Trump administration in Monday afternoon’s hearing. The question now: 18 days—really?

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

What WERE they thinking?

How could President Donald Trump, knowing what he knew about Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, give him the top national security job in the White House to begin with? He was warned against it by the national security community, including Republicans. At their meeting the day after the election, President Barack Obama warned him against it. Even as everyone’s fears about a rogue National Security Adviser were played out and pictures of Flynn sitting at dinner with Russian president Vladimir Putin circulated, Trump pressed on. Even after the White House was told Flynn lied about his contacts to the vice president, Trump stayed with him.

Now we know how it could happen, thanks to the testimony of Sally Yates, the number one justice official in the country until she was removed in February. When asked what happened at a meeting in which she told White House Counsel Donald McGahn that Flynn had lied about his contacts with Russian officials to the vice president making him susceptible to blackmail, Yates said McGahn asked her, “What does it matter to the Justice Department if one White House official lies to another?”

If you have to ask such a question, we know the answer. Lying in the White House is so common it’s not worth mentioning. Honesty may be the best policy elsewhere, but not in the Oval Office.

There was nothing else in the hearing quite as stunning as the top lawyer in the White House telling the top lawyer in the Justice Department that lying in the White House was none of her business. But it was also pretty eye-popping that at Monday’s subcommittee hearing on the Russian hacking of the 2016 election, Yates said, “We believed that General Flynn was compromised with respect to the Russians," and that “logic would tell you that you don’t want the national security adviser to be in a position where the Russians have leverage over him.”

Logic wouldn’t prevail for 18 days after the White House knew. Flynn’s resignation was ultimately accepted but defending him hasn’t. The morning of the hearing, Trump advised senators to ask Yates whether she leaked classified information (she didn’t) and criticized the fake news media for never mentioning the fact that Flynn had a security clearance during the Obama Administration. Well, there are security clearances and security clearances. The one for the top job is much higher and more stringent. What’s more, Flynn never completed the process. It took the fake news media to ferret out how much work he did for Russia and others and how much he was paid. And Flynn had been booted in 2014 from his lesser job as chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Yates’ first scheduled testimony was cancelled, giving the White House time to paint her as a political hack out to get Trump and using Flynn to do so. They didn’t know what a straight arrow they were confronting, an editor of the Georgia Law Review from a family of lawyers. Her brother and husband are lawyers, and her father was chief judge of the Court of Appeals. Her inspiration was her grandmother, one of the first women to graduate law school and become a member of the Georgia bar. Although she was “the smartest of the bunch,” Yates said, no law firms in the state hired women at the time, and she became a legal secretary. When she took the oath to become the first female U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia in 2010, she said she wished her grandmother could be there.

Yates is the kind of career prosecutor over her 27 years who makes the wheels of justice grind. In speeches, she always says what an honor it is, once joking that it was “worth every cent she wasn’t paid.” Far from being partisan, Yates counts among her white-collar prosecutions many Democrats, including the powerful Democratic Mayor of Atlanta, Bill Campbell. It’s no surprise she went to the White House to speak truth to power about Flynn, nor that she refused to enforce Trump’s travel ban. When Yates was nominated by Obama in 2015 to be deputy attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions asked her if she would disobey a president’s unlawful order. She responded that she would have an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution, and to give independent legal advice to the president. She was confirmed in a bipartisan vote, 84-12.

Yates became acting AG when Loretta Lynch stepped down after the inauguration. She held the job for only 10 days before being fired. A few years ago, Yates told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that given that her grandmother became a lawyer when it was nearly impossible, “I thought to myself that, if she did that, how hard could it be for me?”

Now she knows. And there may be more character assassination to come. The White House never stepped up and fired Flynn. That would look like a mistake was made. His resignation was “accepted,” and only after 18 days, during which Flynn conducted highly sensitive meetings, was privy to classified information, and joined the president on a call with Putin. Yates’ firing was quick and dirty. That tells us a lot about how the White House rolls.