Parsing the silence of Sally Yates, the new hero of Georgia Democrats

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Former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder with former acting U.S. attorney general Sally Yates at the Carter Center in Atlanta in February. Henry Taylor, henry.taylor@ajc.com

She has been spotted here and there in Atlanta, with and without her husband, Comer Yates. At the theater. At a restaurant. And on Wednesday, at a Carter Center event that featured an ex-colleague, former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder.

Sally Yates received a standing ovation at that last event, just for walking in. Over the last three weeks, since she was so dramatically sacked by President Donald Trump, Yates has fueled the dreams of Georgia Democrats as a 2018 candidate for governor who might be able to woo white voters — especially white women — back to the party.

Yates has neither done nor said anything in public to encourage such talk, or to discourage it. And when a member of that Wednesday audience asked about her appetite for public office, the former Justice Department official refused to break character. She remained an inscrutable sphinx.

“I am just here in the audience,” she demurred. That was followed by another standing round of applause at an Atlanta gathering of lawyers the next day.

In truth, Georgia Democrats might want to steel themselves for disappointment. The situation in Washington has become a deal more serious since Yates was handed her pink slip — in ways that could see her enmeshed, as a material witness, in a brewing fight between the U.S. Senate and the White House. One with heavy constitutional overtones.

Former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder sends attention the way of former acting U.S. attorney general Sally Yates at the Carter Center on Wednesday in Atlanta. Henry Taylor, henry.taylor@ajc.com

Former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder sends attention the way of former acting U.S. attorney general Sally Yates at the Carter Center on Wednesday in Atlanta. Henry Taylor, henry.taylor@ajc.com

Keep in mind, too, that after decades of public service with only modest pecuniary reward, Yates is at her zenith in the legal marketplace. Former deputy attorneys general, never mind former acting ones, are prized trophies worth hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

Larry Thompson, an Atlanta predecessor of Yates as U.S. attorney, was deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration until August 2003. Thirteen months later, Thompson was named general counsel of Pepsico.

“I have no worries. She’s always been able to handle herself,” a longtime family friend said of Yates. But even he had no idea what she intends to do next.

“Ultimately, for someone who has not been gunning for it all of her life, it is hard to pull the trigger on a run,” said another ranking Democrat.

Things were simpler in the hours after Trump fired Yates on the night of Jan. 30 — just 10 days after the new president himself had been sworn in. Yates had agreed to stay on until the confirmation of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama as attorney general.

Then came Trump’s executive order on immigration, which put a 120-day halt to the entire U.S. refugee program, and banned all entries from seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days.

Yates directed Justice Department attorneys not to defend the executive order against the court challenges that immediately put the presidential dictum under siege.

In a letter, she strongly implied that Trump’s campaign calls for a “Muslim ban” were an issue, noting that a previous, in-house review did “not take account of statements made by an administration or it surrogates close in time to the issuance of an executive order that may bear on the order’s purpose.

“And importantly, it does not address whether any policy choice embodied in an executive order is wise or just,” Yates wrote.

 



 

Trump promptly sacked her, declaring that Yates had “betrayed the Justice Department” she had served for 28 years.

By the next Tuesday morning, Georgia Democrats were talking about the gift they had been given only months before the 2018 race for governor cranks up in earnest. Without saying a word in public, she had become a hero to millions of Democratic voters. Money would flow like honey from anti-Trump enthusiasts.

“I’ll tell you, a woman who prosecuted a whole bunch of Atlanta politicians, with Republican support and now a full-throated stand against Donald Trump — well, that might be the magic bullet,” said Seth Clark, an experienced Democratic campaign hand.

And then Michael Flynn happened.

Last Monday, the Washington Post reported that only days before she was fired — and about the time Trump’s executive order on immigration became public — Yates had informed the White House that Flynn, the president’s national security advisor, had misled his bosses about contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States and was “potentially vulnerable” to blackmail.

By the end of the day, Flynn had resigned.

In the final days of the Obama administration, the retired Army lieutenant general and Trump campaigner had jumped onto the radar screen of U.S. intelligence agencies — which had been monitoring the Russian ambassador’s communications.

Yates, the newspaper reported, declined comment. But there was this line in the Post article: “Yates, then the deputy attorney general, considered Flynn’s comments in the intercepted call to be ‘highly significant’ and ‘potentially illegal,’ according to an official familiar with her thinking.”

Yates is now the ranking individual who spans a budding, trans-administration inquiry that will center on Russian activity and aims in the 2016 presidential contest. At least four Senate committees — Intelligence, Foreign Relations, Armed Services, and Judiciary — are preparing their questions. The House Intelligence Committee is also stirring.

An independent commission, which would take longer, remains a possibility.

It’s possible to be both a political candidate for statewide office and a witness in one of those legendary confrontations between a Congress and a president. But the optics change. Motives are called into question.

As a potential politician, Yates is attractive because of her bipartisan appeal. She was brought into the Justice Department in 1989 by Bob Barr, a Republican who was U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia at the time. Barr would go on to be a member of Congress.

“She was the very best of the candidates for the position — extremely bright and well-suited to the temperament of an assistant U.S. attorney,” Barr said.

Barr disagreed with Yates’ decision to take what amounted to a defiant stand against Trump’s immigration order – no surprise there. But he, too, sees that Yates’ high profile in a congressional investigation could pose challenges to immediate political ambition.

“It presents, shall we say, some complexities — very clearly. There are, obviously now, issues that are going to be of continuing concern to the House and the Senate, relating to the Flynn issue. The immigration executive order is still very much alive,” Barr said.

“There may be questions over some of these surveillance programs that the Department of Justice is involved in — and Sally Yates, in particular. There’s just a whole range of issues that are not likely to go away anytime soon — and could crop up in the middle of a political environment,” Barr said.

He didn’t intend it that way, but there was a warning in what the former GOP congressman said. We have seen congressional investigations weaponized in a political campaign — witness Hillary Clinton’s 11-hour appearance in 2015 before the House committee investigating the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Should Yates hold herself out as an anti-Trump hero for Georgia Democrats, her three years as No. 2 in the Obama administration’s Justice Department becomes a prime target for Republicans in Washington who might be eager to share the blame for whatever the next several months may bring.


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