In Sally Yates, the president certainly chose the wrong enemy.
The former acting attorney general, whom Donald Trump fired out of pique Jan. 30 for refusing to enforce his Muslim ban—four days after she warned the White House that his national security adviser was an unmitigated liar who’d been dangerously compromised by our Russian adversaries—elegantly disemboweled many of the president’s worst whoppers Tuesday night on CNN.
At one point during Anderson Cooper’s exclusive interview with the crisply blue-suited career Justice Department lawyer, which was conducted on Monday morning (before the latest alarming headlines out of the Trump White House), the CNN anchor asked for her reaction to the president’s critique of her testimony last week to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Watch them start to choke like dogs,” Trump had gleefully told his dinner guests from Time magazine as he did color commentary to a video of Yates’ Senate appearance alongside retired director of national intelligence James Clapper. “Watch what happens,” Trump added. “They are desperate for breath.”
“I’m not going to dignify that with a response,” Yates replied coolly with a soft Southern accent that was suddenly hard as steel.
Where Trump is gluttonous, rambling, egomaniacal, and undisciplined—the leader of the free world as an unmade bed—Yates is a human laser beam, focused on her target.
And also, despite all that, immensely likable.
That’s the persona that emerged from the lengthy sit-down, presented in multiple segments on AC 360, that covered her decisions not only to oppose the president’s anti-Muslim executive order that was later adjudged unconstitutional by a series of federal trial and appeals courts, but also to alert the White House that retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, Trump’s trusted national security adviser, had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador and then lied about it to the vice president and the FBI, opening himself up to criminal prosecution by U.S. law enforcement authorities and blackmail by the Kremlin.
“I know we conveyed a sense of urgency when we went over and met with the White House counsel and said the national security adviser may be able to be blackmailed by the Russians,” Yates said, describing her hastily arranged session with presidential attorney Don McGahn and contradicting Trump’s claim to NBC’s Lester Holt last Thursday that Yates’ revelations didn’t seem like much of an emergency—hence the 18-day gap between her visit and Flynn’s firing. “How much of a siren do you have to sound?” Yates demanded.
While the interview covered much of the same territory as Yates’ Senate testimony last week, Cooper managed to tease out a sense of human vulnerability that was barely in evidence under oath at the Judiciary Committee.
“I certainly knew this was about to happen,” she said, recounting her reaction to being fired via a White House letter delivered to her Justice Department office, ending a 27-year career in public service, “but I’d be less than honest if I said it wasn’t a punch in the gut.”
But doing anything other than opposing the Muslim ban, and instructing her lawyers not to defend it in court, “felt like it would have been an abdication of my responsibility. I couldn’t have done anything else and lived with myself.”
In the wide-ranging interview, Yates also pushed back on the Trump White House’s claims that she’s a partisan hack who wants to run for governor of Georgia (she has zero interest in elected office, she said, although she acknowledged, “I am a Democrat”); talked about her career path as the descendant of judges and Methodist preachers (“It was a binary choice”); and defended James Comey, a longtime Justice Department colleague who reported to her when he was FBI director and she was deputy attorney general; Yates, an Obama administration holdover, assumed the post of acting attorney general when Loretta Lynch resigned.
“Jim is obviously a very qualified and experienced guy,” Yates said.
Cooper asked: Is Comey, as Trump claimed to Holt, a showboat and grandstander?
“I find him to be a straight shooter and candid,” Yates answered. “Jim would speak his mind. Some would call that showboating,” though clearly Yates would not.
As for the ongoing investigations into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russian operatives and the nature of Mike Flynn’s contacts and what he said about them to federal agents, “it seems to change on what is almost an hourly basis right now,” she said. “It seems to me that there is only one truth and we ought to get to that.”
Cooper asked if Yates, just like Comey, would have refused to accede to the president’s request for personal loyalty—as reportedly occurred over dinner between Comey and Trump the night of Jan. 27, the same day Yates met for a second time with Don McGahn to stress her concerns about Gen. Flynn.
“Our loyalty at the Department of Justice should be to the people of the United States, to the law and the Constitution, and to no one and nothing else,” she told Cooper.
Alas, the interview took place before Tuesday’s report that the president asked Comey to drop the FBI’s investigation of Flynn—and Yates, reached by phone, declined to comment, Cooper said.