Sally Yates Savages Trump Travel Ban In DNC Speech

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates addresses the virtual convention on August 18, 2020 / DNCC via Getty Images)
August 18, 2020

Sally Yates, an Obama holdover who served as acting attorney general in the early days of the Trump administration, denounced the president and heralded her refusal to defend his travel ban during Tuesday night remarks to the Democratic National Convention.

Yates is widely considered a frontrunner for attorney general should Democratic nominee Joe Biden prevail in the November election. She is also immediately adjacent to two of the Trump era's greatest controversies: the president's travel ban and the surveillance of Trump associates during the 2016 campaign.

"I was fired for refusing to defend President Trump's shameful and unlawful travel ban," Yates said. "That was the start of his relentless attacks on our democratic institutions and countless dedicated public servants."

"He's trampled the rule of law, trying to weaponize our Justice Department to attack his enemies and protect his friends," she added.

A subsequent iteration of the ban was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2018. Those travel sanctions have since been modified and expanded. The justices first allowed the travel restrictions to take effect while legal fights unfolded in 2017, albeit on a limited basis.

Though Yates cast her refusal to defend the order as clear and decisive in Tuesday's speech, her actions at the time appeared more cautious. In a carefully crafted letter circulated to Justice Department staff shortly after Trump's order came down, Yates did not say that the order couldn't be defended. Instead, she hedged, writing that she was "not convinced" that the order was legal.

Her letter elsewhere suggested that statements made by Trump and his surrogates show that the ban's true purpose is stigmatizing Muslims, as opposed to national security. The High Court ultimately declined to consider that evidence, however, concluding that it was not relevant to their review.

Even after leaving the administration, Yates has remained a Washington fixture as investigations into surveillance of the Trump campaign unfold. She most recently testified before Congress on August 5, saying she would not have signed off on applications to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page had she known those applications contained omissions. An inspector general investigation found 17 separate errors or omissions in government process to obtain surveillance warrants for Page.

Yates's actions nonetheless made her an early hero to the president's opponents. After her dismissal, she took up an academic perch at Georgetown, then went into private practice at King & Spalding, a highly lucrative law firm based in her native Georgia.