Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates — who became the first person to be fired by President Trump after he took office when she refused to defend his travel ban executive order — got a rock-star welcome on Friday in New York City.
The crowd who cheered her was at the ninth annual Women in the World Summit, a three-day event focusing on female leadership, launched by former editorial guru Tina Brown; others appearing this year included or will include Hillary Clinton; Viola Davis; Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Julianna Margulies; Misty Copeland; Diane von Furstenberg; and Parkland gun-control activist Delaney Tarr.
On Friday, Yates — whose onstage interview, conducted by Brown, was dubbed “The Woman Who Wouldn’t Back Down” — spoke about both the misfortune and honor of having her nearly three-decade career with the Department of Justice end with her firing.
“It’s weird to have spent 27 years there and be defined by the last act,” she said. “But I do think it’s reflective of how I tried to do my job for 27 years,” which, she explained, was “to seek justice,” and which she saw as “an incredible privilege.” Yates noted that responding in any other way to Trump’s proposed travel ban would have “disrespected” her many years in public service, and that while the proposed ban has now been tweaked several times, she says, “I’m still concerned it’s infected with the same racial animus and … the desire to instate a Muslim ban.”
Regarding her opinion on her replacement, Jeff Sessions, she asked Brown, laughing, “How long do we have?” and listed her policy disagreements, particularly regarding prison reform, low-level drug offenders, the lack of equal-rights enforcement, and immigration. Still, Yates said she respects Sessions for recusing himself in the Russia investigation and, in regard to that, is “kind of pulling for him right now.”
Brown asked Yates her thoughts on the possibility of Trump firing special counsel Robert Mueller, who she called “a kind of caped crusader figure” in the eyes of many. “It feels like we’re teetering on the brink of the demise of the rule of law,” Yates said, adding, “If he could do it and get away with it, I think he’d fire Bob Mueller.” But Mueller, added Yates, who has known him for many years, “is just the person that we should all want in that position. He is a ‘Just the facts, ma’am’ kind of guy. All of this Twitter stuff and all? It’s rolling off his back. I have tremendous confidence in him.”
Regarding the possibility of her own run for elected office, Yates demurred, despite her husband’s suggestion that she “just don’t say never” when asked. “I clearly do feel drawn to public service,” she said. “But I kind of feel like most people who run for office have always wanted to do that … and I’ve never felt drawn to running for public office.” So, she added, “I have a hard time seeing that.”
What Yates does see, despite “assaults” on justice and on freedom of the press from the administration, is hope for the future.
“We can’t control what President Trump does, but we can control how we respond to it. I get that it’s exhausting … but if in our fatigue of that we normalize this, then we’re going to be the ones responsible for this being the new normal,” she said. She added, “One of the things that’s been most inspiring to me is that men and particularly women are feeling it right now — they are plugged in and … out protesting and getting actively involved. Just look at the Parkland kids. Is that humbling or what?”
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