Former acting attorney general Sally Yates discussed the “compressed period of time” in which she found out about President Donald Trump’s first travel ban, at the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival on Wednesday.
“I was in the car on the way to the airport … and I had actually just finished a meeting at the White House on what’s now known as the Mike Flynn situation,” Yates said. “I got a call from my principal deputy … [who] says, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but I was just on the New York Times website and it looks like the president has instituted some sort of travel ban.'”
“That’s how we found out about it at the Department of Justice: read about it on the Internet,” Yates said. “I’m on my way to the plane, I’ve got my iPad, I’m furiously going on there trying to figure out what it is.”
“I’m literally going online to try to find a copy of the executive order so we could get some sense of what this was,” Yates continued. “So over the course of that weekend, it was a whole lot of trying to figure out ‘What the heck is this thing, and to whom does it apply?'”
Trump’s first draft of the travel ban went into effect in January, shortly after he was sworn in. The ban, met with confusion from legal experts and fierce opposition from immigration advocates, was struck down by several federal courts that cited Trump’s rhetoric during his presidential campaign and past statements made on Twitter.
As a holdover from President Barack Obama’s administration, Yates was ultimately dismissed after refusing to enforce Trump’s executive order, to which she coined as “not grounded in truth.”
“We gathered all of the folks who were involved in this at the Justice Department in my conference room, and that included the Trump administration appointees,” said Yates. “We went around the table with [me] asking them, ‘Tell me why you think this is lawful. How are we going to defend this.'”
“At the end of that, I was not comfortable that it was in fact lawful or constitutional,” Yates continued.
Faced with the choice of either resigning or defending the constitutionality of the travel ban, Yates defended her decision to issue a Justice Department directive not to present arguments in defense of the travel ban “unless until I was convinced it was lawful.”
“I didn’t feel like I would be doing my job if I just essentially said ‘I’m out of here. You guys figure this out,'” Yates said. “That would have protected my personal integrity, but I didn’t believe that it would have protected the integrity of the Department of Justice. And it wouldn’t have been doing my job.”
“Not surprisingly, I got a letter about 9:00 p.m. that night firing me,” Yates said. “So that was that.”