The Firing of Sally Yates


Sally Yates. Credit to J. David Ake, Associated Press. 2016.


Last night, acting US Attorney General Sally Yates was fired by President Donald Trump for refusing to comply with Trump’s demands for the Department of Justice to enforce his executive order banning immigration from seven different countries in the Middle East.

This move is a concerning one, for a number of reasons. The job of the Attorney General is not to blindly obey the President; but, rather to enforce the law in a way that is fair, Constitutional, and just.

“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 wrote in a letter shortly before she was dismissed.

In declining to enforce Trump’s executive order that, for all intents and purposes, banned many Muslim people from coming into the United States, Yates was simply doing her job – a job that the United States Senate deemed her able to perform.

And Trump fired her for it.

This is not the kind of action normally taken in a democratic system designed with checks and balances to ensure equitable distribution of power. This is the kind of action taken by a dictator who cannot tolerate dissent.

Even more alarming is the language used by Trump’s camp to describe this totalitarian move.

“[Yates] has betrayed the Department of Justice,” the statement read. Betrayed.

The implications of this move are huge. Namely, it is a clear statement from the White House that those who do not fall in line will be branded as the enemy and cast aside. In the president’s eyes, this is simply the new cost of doing business.

The statement’s language is consistent with messaging from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who recently branded “the media” as the White House’s opposition party. Trump doubled down on that claim in a tweet a couple days later.

Also within the past week, the Trump team aired an ad calling for all Trump supporters to join together because, as the voiceover gravely announced, “Trump is under attack.”

The us versus them narrative currently being pushed by the White House is not only divisive; it is dangerous.

It is dangerous because it puts a target on the backs of those people who criticize and disagree with the Trump administration simply through the performance of their jobs – in this instance, the media and Sally Yates.

These are reasonable people attempting to preserve the integrity of the role that their jobs play in our democracy.

The job of the media is to shine a light on government, to provide transparency to processes that can so easily befuddle the casual observer. They have done that, calling out Trump and Spicer on a number of their falsehoods (or, alternative facts, if you prefer that terminology) and have been branded as the “opposition party.”

Sally Yates’ job was to pursue and maintain justice in the United States; she did so by refusing to enforce a law that is, on its face, discriminatory, and was fired for it.

Trump’s actions since his inauguration betray his total lack of regard for the systems that are set in place by the Constitution to check the power of the executive. He would prefer to operate free of resistance or restraint, in a way that threatens the integrity of our democracy.

Moving forward, this makes the role of protest and resistance from citizens even more important. Trump can fire Attorneys General, and he can rail against the media, but he cannot get rid of us. He cannot silence the voice of millions who are speaking out, who are demanding justice.

The success of everything Trump does hinges on silence. He needed Sally Yates to be quiet; she refused, so he replaced her. He needs Congress to turn the other cheek. He needs the Supreme Court to meekly nod and smile.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, he requires our quiet acquiescence.

However, as the last couple weeks have reminded us all, there is great power in rejecting the call to silence and decorum in favor of raising our voices. As President Obama said yesterday, in his first statement since leaving the White House, “Citizens exercising their Constitutional right to assemble, organize, and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake.”

So, let’s take a page out of Sally Yates’ book. When we see something immoral happening in the world around us, let’s call it out. And let’s not stop calling it out until a change is made.

Trump can’t fire all of us.

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