Columns

Former Bush AG on Yates Firing: 'Very, Very Important' for Trump to Welcome 'Diverse Views'

Then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales speaks during a news conference in Boston on Dec. 15, 2006. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

President Bush’s former attorney general said “by accounts” fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates “has done a tremendous service to the Department of Justice and to the American people.”

“Having said that, I think I tend to agree with those who are concerned about the fact that she should have resigned,” Alberto Gonzalez told CNN this morning.

Yates, who prosecuted Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph in the 1990s, was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia by President Obama in 2010 and to deputy attorney general in 2015, when she was confirmed by the Senate 84-12. Since Attorney General Loretta Lynch left at the end of Obama’s term, Yates was overseeing the department while Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) went through the confirmation process.

Yates said in a department letter Monday that her responsibility when it came to President Trump’s executive order blocking entry from a handful of Muslim-majority nations “is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible, but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts.”

“In addition, I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right,” Yates said. “At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the Executive Order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is lawful. Consequently, for as long as I am the Acting Attorney General, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense of the Executive Order, unless and until I become convinced that it is appropriate to do so.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer responded with a scathing statement calling her “an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration” and declaring Yates “has betrayed the Department of Justice.”

“It is time to get serious about protecting our country. Calling for tougher vetting for individuals travelling from seven dangerous places is not extreme. It is reasonable and necessary to protect our country,” Spicer said, adding that Trump “relieved Ms. Yates of her duties and subsequently named Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to serve as Acting Attorney General until Senator Jeff Sessions is finally confirmed by the Senate, where he is being wrongly held up by Democrat senators for strictly political reasons.”

Gonzalez said “this whole episode has some very bizarre facts.”

“As a typical matter, of course, the Department of Justice signs off on every executive order because in the event it’s challenged, they are the ones that are going to defend it, and for those that are controversial, the fact that the attorney general or the deputy attorney general is not aware of what [the Office of Legal Counsel] is considering and the advice the OLC was given, I would find that very unusual and perhaps a breakdown of the process within the Department of Justice,” he said.

Gonzalez said that “once the attorney general has an issue with an order from the White House, there should have been discussions between the attorney general and the White House counsel and the chief of staff, and then ultimately the president of the United States to advise the White House that she had serious concerns.”

“And at that point, if the White House says we still want to move forward, I think it would have been appropriate for Sally Yates to then resign as opposed to sending out a blanket order to Department of Justice lawyers that they are not going to defend this executive order,” he added.

The former attorney general noted there “was one instance where I had a very serious conversation with the president, and depending upon which direction the president was going to go, I was prepared to resign my position as attorney general, because the president is entitled to have his lawful orders carried out.”

“…I’ve listened to many commentators over the past 24 hours, some in agreement with Sally Yates interpretation but others who are in disagreement because this is a very complicated area, and as we all know, the president of the United States has a great deal of discretion with respect to immigration enforcement and the protection of our country. So this is not a black-and-white analysis from my perspective.”

Gonzalez emphasized “it’s very, very important for the president to have diverse views from members throughout his administration, and I think people within the administration should be confident, should be able to express freely their opinion as to whether or not something is lawful and as a matter of law, but also as to whether or not something represents good policy.”

Congressional Democrats were applying the firing of Yates to the pending nomination of Sessions, arguing that the attorney general “should be loyal and pledge fidelity to the law, not the White House,” in the words of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“The fact that this administration doesn’t understand that is chilling,” Schumer added.

Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) said Yates “was fired for recognizing that her oath is to the Constitution and not to President Trump.”

“His accusation that she has ‘betrayed the Department of Justice’ is wrong and it is dangerous,” Leahy said. “President Trump has now put his Cabinet on notice: If you adhere to your oath of office to defend the Constitution, you risk your job.”