Nothing was supposed to happen during Sally Yates' time as acting attorney general in the new Trump administration -- at least, nothing out of the ordinary. "It's supposed to be sort of status quo. You just make sure nothing goes off the rails," Yates reasoned Friday before a female audience at the DNC Women's Leadership Forum. "Everything sort of stays as it is."
It took all of one week to upend that precedent, the Obama-appointed former deputy attorney general recounted.
On Friday, Jan. 27, 2017, Yates was in traffic, on her way to Atlanta for a dinner honoring her husband when the call came from her principal deputy, Matt Axelrod. "'You're not going to believe what I just read in New York Times, but it looks like President Trump has executed some kind of travel ban,'" the former acting attorney general recalled Axelrod saying. "And that was the first I had heard of it."
Early that following Monday morning, Justice Department leadership huddled in a large conference room to work out a position on the constitutionality of the order, which banned travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. It was a quick turnaround for the process-oriented institution. "It was like 72 hours," Yates said, noting that the White House never sent her a copy of the directive. "I went online on my iPad to find a copy of the executive order."
Yateswith Executive Order 13769, particularly its treatment of long-term permanent residents. The prospect of defending the travel ban also troubled her, following the president's vocal support during his campaign for a Muslim ban. "We were going to have to argue that this travel ban had absolutely nothing to do with religion."
Yet the harder question, Yates described, was not whether or not the Justice Department should defend the presidential mandate -- it was whether or not she should resign. "Do I stay or do I go?" Yates said, recalling her internal dialogue, joking that she changed her mind as many times as her deadline would allow, over "about an hour and a half," she estimated with a laugh.
The deciding factor for Yates? Recalling her 2015 confirmation hearing and the line of questioning she received from then-Sen. Jeff Sessions. At the time, "Sen. Sessions actually pushed me really hard," Yates said.
In what may be considered an eerie foreshadowing, Sessions, now the attorney general, asked Yates during the hours-long hearing, "Do you think the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that's improper?" Yates, who had been nominated by President Barack Obama, responded by saying that the attorney general or the deputy attorney general "has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution, and to give their independent legal advice to the president."
Yates reflected on her dialogue with the panel of sitting senators in the moments leading up to her decision. "They didn't ask me, 'Will you resign?' They asked me, 'Will you say no?'"
The former acting attorney general contends she knew the stakes were high. "Did I know I was going to get fired? I wasn't stupid. I recognized that there was certainly a good chance," she said with a shrug.
She was fired on Jan. 30, 2017, with the White Housethat Yates "had betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States."
In her 10 days serving as interim leader of the Department of Justice, Yates never met face-to-face with the sitting president. Her interaction with him was limited. "In fact, they tried to fire me by email, but it bounced back," Yates claimed. (CBS News sought clarification from Yates about how she knew about the email, but did not immediately hear back.)
In addition to lecturing at Georgetown Law School, Yates has returned as partner to her old law firm, King & Spalding. Her new tenure focuses on independent investigations, a relevant area in wake of the #MeToo movement, she said.
Asked if she is now optimistic about the special counsel investigation into possible Russia collusion by the Trump administration, Yates nodded, but was quick to qualify that optimism.
"As long as Bob Mueller and Rod Rosenstein stay in their jobs, I'm comfortable about this." She added that she remains concerned about a possible backdoor the president may take if he decides to fire current Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who she views as equally critical to the investigation as that of the special counsel. "Rod Rosenstein is overseeing this and has to approve any special requests that include search warrants, indictments, reports to Congress or public statements."
On the prospect of running for public office, Yates hesitated to address a potential political bid head on. "Many people who run for office always had something inside of them, this burning feeling to put themselves up for elected office," she admits, but she was careful to not rule it out. "I'm not saying there is not set of circumstances in which I would ever consider it, but it's not something I can really picture for me," she told a noticeably disappointed audience.
Yet while Yates has passed up the campaign trail for now, her forthright criticisms of the current administration and defense of rule and law sounded like those of a politician. Earlier this week, she took the stage at the CAP Ideas Convention, an event with a reputation for showcasing ideas from potential candidates.
"There should be consequences when leaders feel they are not even loosely tethered to the truth," she declared to a cheering audience, in a not-so-thinly-veiled reference to the current administration. "I know it's exhausting to stay in constant state of outrage," she adds. "But when we normalize this, I worry, how have we moved the goal post for when this administration is over? What does normal look like then?"