The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg
Sally Yates: Decisions
Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to the Oath. I’m Chuck Rosenberg and I am honored to be your host for a series of Compelling Conversations with fascinating people from the world of public service. My guest today is Sally Yates, in part because so many of you have written to me and asked to hear from her. Sally spent almost three decades in the United States Department of Justice working her way up from line federal prosecutor, all the way to the number two ranking position in the Justice Department: the deputy attorney general. In January of 2017, Sally Yates served as the acting attorney general of the United States. She was fired from that job by President Trump for insubordination when she refused to have the Department of Justice enforce a travel ban issued by the president, which restricted travel to the United States from seven, predominantly Muslim, countries. Sally will explain why she took the stand that she did, and why in her view, there was no other principled course. Sally Yates, welcome to the Oath.
Sally Yates: Thanks for having me, Chuck I’m glad to be here.
Rosenberg: It’s a pleasure to spend some time with you. You were born in Atlanta, Georgia to a family of lawyers and ministers and I think you said you had two options one or the other.
Yates: Yeah, it was not a terribly original career choice that I made, where my father, and both of my grandfathers, uncles, cousins, and most importantly, my paternal grandmother.
Rosenberg: You called her “Mama.”
Yates: We did, yeah.
Rosenberg: What was her actual name?
Yates: It was Tabitha which is–some people pronounce it “Tabitha,” but it’s biblically pronounced “Tabitha.”
Rosenberg: And tell us about her.
Yates: She was a remarkable woman. She actually became a lawyer back in the day where you didn’t have to go to law school. You could do what they called reading law, essentially apprenticing under another lawyer in study, and then take the bar exam, and if you passed, you were a lawyer just like anybody else. And she did that, but this was rural Georgia you know, back in the thirties, and they’re not hiring a lot of lady lawyers back at that time.
Rosenberg: Probably not any.
Yates: No, no. And so, she ended up being the legal secretary to my grandfather and then later to my father and uncle. But she was actually smarter than all of them put together. So, I’ve often thought it had to be incredibly frustrating for her to be typing somebody else’s thoughts, although I suspect she edited pretty heavily as she was typing.
Rosenberg: A good sprinkling of her thoughts in their thoughts. I think I read a story, Sally where her husband, your grandfather, was reading the newspaper, and actually saw her name listed as someone who just was admitted to the practice of law, but didn’t think it was her.
Yates: Well, you know, that’s the family lure. It seems impossible to me, but at least that’s the story that’s been passed down: is that they were literally at the kitchen table reading the paper together and he looked at and said “look at this there’s another Tabitha Quilliam that passed the bar. First of all, what are the chances there’s another Tabitha Quilliam, period. And you know, as the story goes, said “that’s not somebody else, that’s me. “
Rosenberg: Whether true or not, it’s a great story.
Yates: It is.
Rosenberg: So, you’re from a family of lawyers. What did you figure out that you too wanted to be a lawyer?
Yates: It wasn’t early on. In fact, I think sort of my way of rebelling when I was in college and coming out of college, was not being a lawyer. I sort of had this thought that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, I didn’t want to be married to a lawyer, and I didn’t particularly want a lot of lawyer friends. Now, I am a lawyer, I’m married to a lawyer, and have lots of lawyer friends. It was–after I had been out for a couple of years out of college, and I was working on the Hill and the congressman for whom I was working retired, and I was trying to decide what to do next. And just felt this gravitational pull to go to law school.
Rosenberg: And you went to law school at the same place where you went to college.
Yates: I did. I did—University of Georgia.
Rosenberg: So, you’re a bulldog.
Yates: I am.
Rosenberg: When you graduated from law school in 1986, it was in some ways a wonderful year for you, in some ways an awful year for you. Do you mind talking about that?
Yates: No, no. As you mentioned, graduated in 1986, and my father who had been a lawyer and also on a Georgia court of appeals, had struggled with depression really for years. And there were ups and downs in the course of his illness
Rosenberg: Is that something you knew, or saw?
Yates: Oh yeah. I mean we were an incredibly close family. There were no subjects really off the table with us. We shared everything. So, we were very well aware of his struggles with depression. You know, said before, that it’s like when things would be better, we would be so incredibly hopeful, but inevitably, the darkness would come again, and–try to remember, this is the mid 80s and we really were encouraging him to get professional help for this, but he was so worried about the stigma associated with mental illness and particularly, because he had you know, something of a public profile, and was worried about people finding out. And I think he viewed it as a weakness, really, rather than an illness
Rosenberg: Did he articulate that concern about the stigma?
Yates: He did. He did, and he didn’t sort of go through it exactly the same way I did. He was just saying “no I don’t want people to know about this.” That was the one time actually when he would not be quite as forthcoming and he had struggled and struggled and had been for a couple of months before I was to graduate in a particularly dark time and I’ll never forget. We, we spoke every single day by phone. Every day. And I missed a call from him on the afternoon of May 6, and he took his life early that evening. And I’m–you know I’m not suggesting that it’s, it’s because he didn’t talk to me, although I’ll always be haunted by that. It just breaks my heart that someone who lived with a vitality that, I think, very few of us ever embrace, who was always looking for how he could help other people: folks he knew well, and people he barely knew. And yet, we seemed powerless to be able to help him.
Rosenberg: And the irony, of course, is that there are so many people who would have done anything to help your father.
Yates: Oh absolutely. You know, he was one of those people we knew of, of how he was struggling, but he was one of those folks who was able to–you know, he was still functioning. People on the outside would not really have known that he was tormented on the inside. I didn’t talk about this for a very long time.
Rosenberg: Because you couldn’t, or you just didn’t want to, or a combination?
Yates: You know, I guess a combination of that. One thing, it’s–I mean, it’s still–it’s 30 years ago, and it’s still incredibly painful to discuss, and so certainly that was part of it. But also, I think I sort of felt a need to protect his privacy, as well. I think when someone commits suicide, oftentimes they end up being defined by that last final act. And I so much didn’t want for my dad–for him to be defined by how he died, but rather by how he lived. But I’ve realized now how important it is that we talk about this. The only way that we’re going to do anything about the stigma associated with mental illness, is if people like my dad feel free to be able to seek the help that they need, and that doesn’t mean that just folks who are suffering from the illness need to talk about it–all the rest of us do too
Rosenberg: Which is why I was so grateful that you were willing to talk about it today
Yates: I’ve thought about this. If this inspires one person, just one person ever in all the time I talk about it, to, to get the help that they need, or one family member, it’s absolutely worth it.
Rosenberg: Well, if this helps, there’s going to be a lot of people listening, Sally because the one recurring theme in the e-mail that we get at the show: please have Sally Yates on.
Yates: Oh well, I’m feeling the pressure. I hope I won’t disappoint now so–
Rosenberg: You won’t. But to that point, whether it’s depression or addiction, if people need help, they have to seek it.
Rosenberg: And we have to support them in doing so.
Yates: And we, in society, even if that’s not something that we’re personally struggling with, we need to be talking about it, and not stigmatizing it either. You know, I’ve said before, if somebody had kidney disease or had broken their arm, they wouldn’t be reluctant to seek help. We wouldn’t think that they should just tough it out and be able to cure themselves. And likewise, we shouldn’t expect that of people who suffer from addiction or from mental health issues.
Rosenberg: Thank you for talking about your father. And I think you’re right. We should never define his life, or anyone else’s by the last act, but rather by everything that came before that.
Rosenberg: So, you became a lawyer.
Yates: Yeah. Despite all of my intentions, and I’m so glad that I did. I think I’m pretty much a one trick pony. Very one dimensional. I’m a lawyer. And once I started law school, I mean, I knew from the very first week that this was the right place for me. It made sense to me, I loved law school, which probably will make you think I’m crazy
Rosenberg: Not so much because I really liked it too.
Yates: From that first week of law school, I knew despite my resistance to becoming a lawyer, I felt like this is the right path. And it has been.
Rosenberg: And at some point, of course prosecutors are lawyers, but you decided you wanted to be a prosecutor, and I’m not going to get to that, but I first wanted to ask you about the first two or three years out of law school. I know you went to a big law firm: King and Spalding, the law firm that you practice law at now.
Yates: Full circle, returned 30 years later.
Rosenberg: Full circle. Griffin Bell was running the firm at the time, who’s Griffin Bell?
Yates: He was the attorney general in Carter administration. And he came back to King and Spalding. He practiced there before becoming A.G., and came back and started the Special Matters practice there at the firm, which is white collar defense investigations, that–kind of, special problems that some of our clients have. And he is actually the one who encouraged me to go to the U.S. attorney’s office. I hadn’t even really considered being a prosecutor when I was in law school, didn’t take many criminal law classes when, when I was there, and he suggested that I go to the U.S. attorney’s office for a few years and then come back to the firm.
Rosenberg: And why did he want you to do that?
Yates: Well, I had recently actually tried a pro bono case that he had assigned to me, and he saw how gratifying I found that case. And he thought that I would enjoy the work at the Justice Department from a–you know, finding the work gratifying and meaningful, but I also thought that I would have an opportunity to try more cases and in both of those things were true. But I was totally unprepared for how completely committed I would become to the privilege, as corny as it sounds, the privilege of representing the people of the United States.
Rosenberg: Doesn’t sound corny to me, and we’ll talk more about that, but when he asked you to, or suggested to you that you go for a couple years and then come back, he probably didn’t know it would be twenty-seven years.
Yates: But I also don’t think he was altogether surprised. You know, I saw him and talked to him over the years while I was at the U.S. attorney’s office and I think he appreciated the fact that I had become committed to that mission.
Rosenberg: He probably was not surprised you fell in love with the work.
Yates: No, and I did. Once you’ve had the privilege of getting to do the right thing for a living, it’s pretty hard to consider doing anything else.
Rosenberg: You mentioned, just in passing, a pro bono matter that you worked on when you were a young lawyer. But I don’t want to let that slip away because you’ve also described that as one of the most impactful cases in your life. I was hoping you would tell us about it.
Yates: Yeah. This was a case where a woman had been represented through the Saturday Lawyer Program at King and Spalding, a pro bono program you know, years before I was given this case. And when she had another problem arise, she, she came back to the firm, and Judge Bell knew that my family, my father and grandfather had been from Barrow County, Georgia, which is an hour or so outside of Atlanta.
Rosenberg: A rural county.
Yates: Rural county in Georgia. So, he called me up to his office, and he told me about Miss Morrison’s plight, and her family were the first African-American landowners in Barrow County, Georgia. They had obtained 92 acres of property in Bear County back in the 30s, and the problem was, they were very mistrustful of the white court system
Yates: Understandably so, and because this property was so important to them, they weren’t going to go file their deed with this court system. Instead, our client carried the deed that was written on a piece of cloth, not on you know, the fancy legal paper, written on a piece of cloth. She carried it, folded up, into four, down inside her dress every day she was working the fields. They were going to hold on to that deed, but because they didn’t file the deed, there was an adjoining landowner who had filed a survey with his property, that essentially co-opted like 6.2 acres on this property.
Rosenberg: This is many years later.
Yates: Many years later, many years later. But, because their deed was not timely filed, this other landowner was, was laying claim to six acres of their property. And the property wasn’t worth a whole lot of money, it was actually–that six acres was pretty swampy in and of itself there, but that didn’t matter I mean, this was their property. This meant the world to them, and they wanted that property back
Rosenberg: Her full name was…
Yates: Lovie Morrison.
Rosenberg: Lovie Morrison and so already a pro bono client to the firm, somebody that the firm was helping for free, as many firms do. What did she need now?
Yates: She needed to get the property back, but the problem was, this property, as well as some adjoining properties, had been subdivided, and there was a developer who was building a residential subdivision there. So, this property had actually been sold, their 6 acres. And so, they want to get the property back. So, we filed an action to return the property using arcane legal theory known as adverse possession.
Rosenberg: I vaguely remember it from property.
Yates: Normally. You know you learn that first your property you never use that again.
Rosenberg: What does it mean?
Yates: It means if you have used the property, openly and notoriously for seven years, even if you don’t have a deed that is timely file to that property, then that property is yours. The idea is, is that you’ve sort of laid claim for all to know that you’re claiming this property is yours.
Rosenberg: So, she both actually owned the property, and had adversely possessed it, but she couldn’t prove the former. She couldn’t prove that she actually owned it.
Yates: Right. Because of this conflicting survey. So, we had to prove that she had used it before the adjoining landowner had. And so–
Rosenberg: You had to prove it.
Yates: Right, right. And look, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. No idea. I had never represented a client on my own before and certainly never tried a case. And the way we were going to be able to establish the use of this property, was by our client’s family washing their clothes in this stream that ran through it and cutting timber from there. And there was another adjoining landowner back at the time, that Chancy family, and they were actually known as the “Dixie Mafia.”
Rosenberg: They were there were moonshiners.
Yates: Moonshiners and worse involved there and–
Rosenberg: –at least moonshiners.
Yates: At least moonshiners because they were using this stream and another place to get the water to make their moonshine there, so.
Rosenberg: So, if I’m following, then the Chancey family could help you establish that Lovie Morrison had used that part of her land, that it was actually hers.
Yates: Right. And Ruth Chancey, who was still alive, had witnessed this. She didn’t particularly want to testify.
Rosenberg: Why not?
Yates: Last time she had been inside a courtroom, her husband had been convicted of killing a man and dropping him down a well. And so, things had not gone well for the Chanceys the last time they were there in a courtroom, and she didn’t really have any desire to do it. But I spent afternoon after noon on Miss Chance’s front porch just talking with her letting her get to know me and trust me. And she finally agreed to testify.
Rosenberg: What did you do to convince Ms. Chancey that you needed her help? That Lovie Morrison needed her help?
Yates: You know, I’m not sure I can claim credit for that. I think that once I spent enough time with her, and she trusted what this was all about, that it was about getting the property back for Ms. Morrison. And I think there’s a basic justice thing there, that she knew how much this property meant to the Morrison family. She might not have raised her hand to do this, but she agreed to do it. But I had never even seen a trial before, much less tried a case. I remember the week before the trial, I had to go over and see another case being tried so I would have some idea of what happens in jury selection, like what you’re supposed to do during that.
Rosenberg: Figure out which side of the courtroom you sit on.
Yates: I didn’t even know where to stand, or what you were supposed to say, or any of this. And the firm Charlie Kirbo, who was just one of the great all time Americans, had been President Carter’s–known as his “one main kitchen cabinet.” He was his closest adviser. He had tried a thousand cases and he agreed to come over and try the case with me, or basically I think the firm wanted him to sit there make sure I didn’t commit malpractice. But Mr. Kirbo was the best. He walked the fields with me–came there. It was a little challenging because Mr. Kirbo was very hard of hearing and he had sent his hearing aids in the mail to be adjusted and they had been lost. And so, when we were trying the case, he couldn’t hear what was going on in the courtroom. And he would come up and sort of pull on the sleeve of my jacket and say “have you asked her about— “in this stage whisper that the whole courtroom could hear, which only endeared Mr. Kirby out to everybody there.
Rosenberg: Before we get to what happened, set the scene in the courtroom, and in the county. Lovie Morrison is African-American. I believe your jury is entirely white, your judge is white, the land developer, the other party, and their lawyers are all white. Talk about that.
Yates: Our client and her daughter were the only two African-Americans in the courtroom. And this was before Batson had been extended to civil cases. This is the late 1980s, 1989.
Rosenberg: And explain Batson, because that’s a really important Supreme Court case.
Yates: Batson established that you cannot use race to exclude jurors from a trial. When Batson was first decided, it applied in a criminal case context and there was some period of time, some years before, it also applied in civil case, and so the lawyers on the other side, had eliminated all of the African-Americans from the jury. And in fact, I remember that my client was very upset with me because she didn’t understand at first that we weren’t picking jurors to put on a jury. You weren’t saying I want that person or that person. That the lawyers can only eliminate jurors. So, the other side eliminated all the African-Americans from the jury. So, my poor client had this lawyer who had no idea what she was doing.
Rosenberg: That’s you.
Yates: That’s me using a theory of adverse possession to try to establish claim to property based on acts that occurred decades ago.
Rosenberg: And one of your star witnesses is the wife of a murderer.
Yates: Right. There’s that, not ideal. The jurors, many of whom—again, this is, you know, it was a rural area. They knew all the people on the other side. It wasn’t just that weren’t any African-Americans–many of them knew the lawyer, they knew the surveyor, they knew the developer. You know, it’s a small town, people know each other there–and they didn’t know my client.
Rosenberg: And they didn’t know you.
Yates: No, they didn’t even know my father and grandfather had been from there, I had been raised in Atlanta. And so, you know, they didn’t know me either.
Rosenberg: You describe before the jury returned with its verdict, being rather nervous.
Yates: Yeah, oh I was because you know I, I wanted so much for this to turn out right for Miss Morrison. You know, she too, I think had been a little skeptical of me at first. She didn’t really understand why I was spending all this time on a case when we weren’t getting paid anything for this, but over the time she came to trust me, in fact she sent jelly to me every year at Christmas for years following this case. So, I was incredibly nervous. And–
Rosenberg: What’s that like when a jury comes back with a verdict?
Yates: Oh gosh, the time it feels like an eternity while they’re out. And that was the case not just during my first trial. Every trial I’ve ever had it feels like an eternity–at least. I can’t think about anything else, I know other people who sometimes work on other matters. I’m no good.
Rosenberg: I’m like you. For me it was a moment of such high drama that I couldn’t focus on anything else until the case was resolved.
Yates: Yeah. You know, you’re there in the courtroom and then when you hear they have a verdict in your stomach, or at least mine does, just completely turns over in that moment and when the jury files in, you know, I’ve never known to you look at them, do you not look at them, if you look at him and they make eye contact, does that mean something–you know, I’m no good at reading those tea leaves.
Rosenberg: What happened here?
Yates: Here, it was absolutely remarkable. They came in, and they returned a verdict for Miss Morrison, giving her, her property back. And it’s not because I did some bang-up job there–I did not. I was muddling my way through this. And I got to talk to some of the jurors afterwards. You know, a lot of times, people I think are really cynical about our justice system. And there are certainly problems in our justice system, but those jurors they really took their responsibility very seriously and they pieced through the evidence. And despite the fact they knew all the people on the other side, they felt really good about doing the right thing here. And there was a full circle aspect to this. When you think about that same courthouse where our clients had been so mistrustful of the system that they didn’t even want to file their deed there in that same courthouse, they got justice and they got their property back. And I think they had a new confidence in the justice system that they didn’t have before that as well.
Rosenberg: It’s an incredible story.
Yates: Oh gosh. You know, I’ve said before, I’ve been lucky to be involved in some really interesting matters, some high-profile matters, those kinds of things, but when you think about the gift we have as lawyers to be able to impact real people’s lives it doesn’t always have to be an–a big precedent-making headline-grabbing kind of way. This had a real impact on Miss Mawson’s life.
Rosenberg: I’m just guessing that the jelly she sent to you every year after that was pretty good.
Yates: Oh, it was fantastic. Yeah. And they were just–you know, we had a relationship after that. And I learned a tremendous amount, both about the responsibility of a lawyer, but just about human nature as well.
Rosenberg: Favorite flavor?
Yates: The raspberry. Strawberry is really good to.
Rosenberg: I bet it was. Not too long after that, you went and became an assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Georgia in Atlanta.
Yates: I did.
Rosenberg: Yeah. Did you like that?
Yates: I loved that. Again, I thought I would like it and I actually remember a friend of mine who had been an AUSA and I told him my plan was I was going to go for a couple of years and then come back to the firm and he kind of smugly said “oh well we’ll see just you know how long you stick with that plan after you go to the U.S. attorney’s office,” and I remember he was the one that articulated first to me, sort of once you have that privilege of standing up in a courtroom and saying you represent the people of the United States. I mean, that is an awesome responsibility.
Rosenberg: We’ve talked about that very phrase on this show before–saying your name on behalf of the United States sounds corny, but it sends a chill down your spine.
Yates: If you think about it, what that means is, is that the people of our country are entrusting you to seek justice on their behalf.
Rosenberg: When you became an assistant U.S. attorney, is that the first time you took the oath?
Yates: It is.
Rosenberg: Do you remember it?
Yates: I do, yeah.
Rosenberg: Tell me about it please.
Yates: Well, I remember–you know, this was actually before a lot of people from big firms actually made the transition to the U.S. attorney’s office so there was–you know, not a big fancy ceremony, but I remember there was a ceremony and other AUSAs from the office came and they’re sort of circled around as the oath is administered. And you know, I’m thinking about when I went to private practice–there’s not an oath there. You know, there’s an–certainly, there’s an oath that you take when you’re admitted to the bar.
Yates: But that’s to represent your clients. This was to represent the people of the United States and I made a point after I became U.S. attorney of making a real ceremony out of this, where not only people from the office came, but family members and parents and others. So that one thing, their families could have a full appreciation of what it is that their loved one is doing, and how important this responsibility is. And it’s also good for the senior people in the office who’ve been around for a long time to be reminded again as well, just how fortunate we all were to have the opportunity to take that oath and the responsibility to try to live up to it every day.
Rosenberg: How long were you a line prosecutor in AUSA?
Yates: I became a supervisor after a few years, but I was still trying cases during that time. Even during the I was first assistant there, which is the top assistant before U.S. attorney–so 20 years.
Rosenberg: And I know you’ve had some fascinating cases, but I wanted to ask about one in particular. Eric Rudolph was responsible for the Centennial Park bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, and that was your case.
Yates: There were a number of people over the years, from 1996, but I started on the case, not too long after a few months after the bombing there, and then you know, remained on it all the way through with the search for Eric Rudolph in the woods up North Carolina that went on for years after that.
Rosenberg: So, let’s set the scene. Overall, he was responsible for four bombings: three in Georgia and one in Alabama.
Yates: That’s right.
Rosenberg: And I know at the very first bombing, two people died one directly from the bomb, a woman named Alice Hawthorne.
Rosenberg: And then a cameraman who was actually running to cover what had happened. He died of a heart attack.
Yates: Yeah. Miss Hawthorne was there, actually to celebrate her daughter, Fallon’s 13th birthday. Just tragic. There’s a photograph of Miss Hawthorne there that Fallon was taking literally just seconds before the bomb went off.
Rosenberg: In addition to the two people who died at Centennial Park, more than 100 were injured.
Rosenberg: How do you approach a case like that?
Yates: You have to remember again, Gosh I’m sounding like such an old person now when I’m going back this is–
Rosenberg: We’re the same age.
Yates: But the audience may be–there may be some younger people in the audience. This was the 90s. And so, we didn’t have you know, the benefit of cell phones and other things now where people you know have all their photographs digitized. You know, we’re actually trying to track down every person, just about, in Centennial Park, that was anywhere near where this tower was and it was an incredible amount of work that the FBI did.
Rosenberg: The bomb was placed near a sound tower.
Yates: It was, it was near the NBC sound tower that was there, and the FBI did an amazing job. I mean, there were hundreds, literally hundreds of agents working on this. You might imagine, if there is a bomb at the Olympics, in particular, a fatal bombing, that’s something that impacts not just Atlanta or the United States, but the entire world. And so, it was a massive, massive undertaking with the investigation. And then there were subsequent bombings that at the time, folks didn’t know whether it was the same person or not, but we were able to forensically link to the Centennial Park bombing, and we knew that we had a serial bomber on our hands.
Rosenberg: And when did you figure out that that serial bomber was Eric Rudolph?
Yates: That was not until after the bombing in Birmingham, when there was actually an eye witness to Eric Rudolph walking away from the bomb site there, which was a women’s health clinic.
Rosenberg: And as I recall at that bombing, an off-duty police officer was killed and a nurse was grievously injured.
Yates: Just, just maimed, and there was a witness who, who saw him walking away and was just heroic in following him and getting his license tag number, because even just seeing somebody, being able to describe them, probably wouldn’t do it. The key was getting that license plate number.
and who was Eric Rudolph?
Yates: A domestic terrorist. He was a white supremacist. He hated law enforcement, hated Jewish people. He had some feelings about abortion, but frankly when you go back to his family and friends, that was not anything he ever really talked about. He was one of those people who really was driven more by his anti-Semitic and racist views than anything else and just despised law enforcement.
Rosenberg: He flees. Does he learn that you’re after him, or does he just take off on his own?
Yates: He learned through a radio report that the feds are looking for him, that we were able to you know trace a receipt where he had been through a drive through and were able to link it up with a radio report, and that’s when he went off to his hideout that he had. That was something that he had, had made in advance in case the feds ever came looking for him.
Rosenberg: Deep in the woods of North Carolina.
Yates: Deep in the woods of North Carolina. Right.
Rosenberg: And it took seven years to find him.
Yates: Yes. Remarkable.
Rosenberg: And you’re still an AUSA all this time
Yates: Still in the AUSA, yes.
Rosenberg: And are they actively looking for him. How does that fold.
Yates: Yeah. They certainly were actively looking for him for some period of time. There was a time actually when he had broken into a cabin and we were able to identify that was him, so that would show that he was still alive. In the latter years, though there were not as many signs that he was still out there so people had conflicting theories about whether he was still alive or not. But then he surfaced, actually and Murphy, North Carolina and a local law enforcement person found him dumpster diving there behind a Taco Bell
Rosenberg: As I recall, a rookie police officer.
Yates: Absolutely, yeah. Who didn’t really know who we had at the time he arrested him. But thank goodness for him. And when he brought him in to the station, one of the other police officers there recognized him, even though Rudolph you know had a full beard and all by now and they figured out who they had on their hands there
Rosenberg: And he is sent back to Georgia to your district to stand trial. What happens?
Yates: Well, he was going to stand trial both in Birmingham and Atlanta because he’s charged in Atlanta with three bombings there, Centennial Park, bombing of a women’s health clinic, and a gay bar, and the bombing in Birmingham as well. And so, we were moving forward with both cases at that time when there were some discussions about plea negotiations.
Rosenberg: Now to set the stage, it’s a death penalty eligible case. What does that mean, Sally?
Yates: Because death resulted from his crimes. There is a process that the Department goes through for the attorney general to ultimately make the final decision about whether the Department of Justice will seek the death penalty, or not. But, both the Birmingham bombing and the Centennial Park bombing were death eligible
Rosenberg: Because people died.
Rosenberg: Ultimately, he did not get the death penalty, and there was no trial. He pled guilty, and is spending the rest of his life without eligibility for parole in federal prison. How did that happen?
Yates: Well, we were proceeding along with both cases: the Birmingham and the Atlanta case, and I heard from his defense lawyer about some dynamite. The issue here, is that three of the bombings had used dynamite, and dynamite is not just something that you know you walk into Wal-Mart and buy–it’s controlled. And we had identified where we believed Rudolph had gotten this dynamite, there was a big theft in North Carolina, but there was a whole lot of it, hundreds of pounds that was still missing when we had you know found his trailer, and his truck, and everything else. We had never been able to find the rest of the dynamite and that really worried us because as I learned from the forensic folks at the FBI, dynamite becomes very volatile if it’s not turned, and over the years it becomes incredibly volatile. And so, we were worried about where this might be. And so, if you have volatile dynamite out there that’s not being properly turned and cared for, that somebody innocent could get hurt
Rosenberg: Maybe just driving a stake into the ground to set up a campsite.
Yates: Right. And that’s what we learned here. His lawyer called and said that Rudolph can tell you where this dynamite is. And in fact, it is buried in a national park, it’s a very big national park. It’s a park that’s frequented by campers. And he’ll tell you where that is. But he wants you to take death off the table.
Rosenberg: So that was the trade-off.
Yates: That was the trade-off that was offered, and he would plead guilty and admit his guilt to all four bombings. But he wants you to take death off of the table. And now when we say take death off of the table, we hadn’t had a death sentence imposed–this was leaving it on the table as an option for the government to seek for a jury to have an option to impose the death penalty.
Rosenberg: So how do you think about that, that tradeoff. Rudolph honestly telling you where the dynamite is so you can recover it and protect the public, on one hand, and these heinous crimes that he committed that resulted in the death of other people, innocent people, for which his death eligible, on the other hand.
Yates: It was a real dilemma. Look, I want to make it clear I wasn’t the only one making this decision. There were other people in our office and lots of people at main Justice, and ultimately, the attorney general, because it was such an important decision. You know, you don’t want to allow someone to be able to buy their way out of a decision like that. And certainly, if you’re going to have a death penalty, then these were crimes that were worthy of a jury having that consideration. On the other hand, what we really struggled with was the worry, that as forensic folks have told us, you could have a group of Boy Scouts that are out there, and are literally, as you just said, driving a stake into the ground, that would be enough to detonate this dynamite. And so, we felt a real responsibility to protect innocent members of the public and now, and for years to come. And so, we struggled back and forth with what do we do there. And we were worried, also that this was a setup from Rudolph.
Rosenberg: Explain that.
Yates: Well, this was you know, sometime after, but not too long after the Unabomber: Ted Kaczynski, who had booby trapped his cabin there in Montana. And given how Rudolph felt about law enforcement, there was great concern that we were being set up to lure them into a place that he had booby trapped, for him to be able to kill even more members of law enforcement. And I remember Rudolph initially wanted us to like let him out and said he would take the law enforcement folks. There was no way in the world anybody, like you know, was letting–after Rudolph had been on the run for years, nobody let Rudolph out. And so, we ultimately decided that it would be irresponsible on our part not to do what we could to protect innocent members of the public from being harmed or potentially killed. And so, we began these negotiations with his lawyer where his lawyer is literally with him there at the federal prison with topographical maps. You know, this was not–it wasn’t like he had G.P.S. coordinates where he could tell us where it was. It was more like well you go to the top of the hill, and there a big rock, and then you go right about 20 paces and–you know, that’s the kind of description that he had. And he would relay that to us. We would give that then to the agents they would go and try to follow those directions with a lot of back and forth, and through all of that, they were able to locate the dynamite. It was a huge stash. It was so volatile at this point. They didn’t feel like they could even move it, that it could detonate with that. So, they had to detonate it in place, which made just this enormous crater. But, that meant people frequenting that forest wouldn’t, wouldn’t have to be fearful in the future
Rosenberg: They would be safe.
Yates: They would be safe. I mean, it’s not the kind of thing that you learn in law school how to make a decision like that, but Chuck, I mean you know from your time in law enforcement from your time at the Department of Justice, a lot of the decisions that we make are balancing decisions where you’re trying to serve the interests of the public, and you’re trying to balance this, and hope that you strike the right balance in making those decisions.
Rosenberg: And as I’ve come to learn, there is often not a playbook for the hardest ones.
Yates: No, there’s not. And look, maybe other people would’ve made a different decision. I believe this was the right one. Eric will serve the rest of his life in prison–that’s where he should be. But again, other people will be safe.
Rosenberg: I completely agree. It’s the right outcome. Later, in that same office, you had worked your way up from line AUSA, to supervisor, to first assistant United States attorney to the chief deputy. You were the United States attorney. You were in charge.
Yates: Right. Honor of my life. Yes.
Rosenberg: When did you become the United States attorney in the Northern District of Georgia?
Yates: It was the beginning of the Obama administration. And I’d served as first assistant, actually for two U.S. attorneys and the Bush administration prior to that.
Rosenberg: Did you like being in charge?
Yates: I did like being in charge.
Yates: Well, a couple of things. One, I’d grown up in the office, but I think you know, as much as you think you know, how different can it be, to go from being first assistant to being U.S. attorney? It’s actually very different because it’s one thing to be advising the U.S. attorney on you know these-tough call kind of decisions. It’s a whole other thing to actually being the one making the decision. But to me, what I liked about it is that it gave me an opportunity to really be able to chart the course of the office. There are really limited resources in any U.S. attorney’s office and you can’t do everything there and you have to decide how you’re going to use those resources to make the district as safe as you can do it. But also, importantly, and to me this is just as important, is to do it in a way that engenders the trust of the people whom you serve. And that included also being involved in prevention efforts on the front end and prisoner re-entry on the back end to ensure that they’re successful. So, I loved having a chance to be able to chart that course in an office, in a department that I believed in so strongly.
Rosenberg: So, I had a similar experience. I had been a line AUSA I’d been a supervisor. I became the U.S. attorney in that same district. The thing I loved, was the hiring–the chance to hire young men and women for that line AUSA job that I had loved so much.
Yates: You’re absolutely right because those are the folks that are going to be there a lot longer than you are. As U.S. attorney. As a political appointment, you know, you’re going to go when the president goes, and you know that going into it. But you see that that’s really the future of the office. And I can remember interviewing AUSAs and to me, there’s lots of smart lawyers out there. I hate to say it, sort of, smart lawyers were a dime a dozen–top of their class. You know, that was sort of table stakes. What I was looking for was whether this person got the very special responsibility that you had as an assistant United States attorney. That it’s not to win trials, it’s not to put people in prison–it’s to seek justice. And you got to make sure that you have people in place whose compass is pointed in the right direction there to ensure that the department continues to fulfill that mission.
Rosenberg: I used to say the same thing—well, I still do, in fact, that it was easy to hire smart. But what we really need to hire, was folks who are emotionally intelligent and who also understood that you would treat a victim, or a bank robber, or a probation officer, or a federal judge exactly the same way: with civility and with respect.
Yates: Right. You know, I remember a young AUSA telling me one time she had had a few sentences, and she came to me and said: “Sally I gotta leave the office. I can’t do this.” And I asked her to tell me more. She said: “I can’t be an AUSA because sentencings are really hard. I look at the family members that are you know, sitting in the row behind the defendant and I see how they’re being impacted by this. And I’m just not cut out to be an AUSA.” And what I told her was is the day she should leave, is the day that sentencing is are not hard for her.
Rosenberg: We talked about this with Preet Bharara on this very show about the fact that you never see real AUSAs or real agents celebrating a verdict in a courtroom or gloating after a sentencing, because those are hard moments, or at least they should be hard moments for everybody in that courtroom.
Yates: That’s absolutely right. I mean you take some satisfaction that justice is done–there are victims oftentimes in these cases, but it’s not anything you’re happy about. And certainly, when you when you know of the ripple effects that are felt by innocent members of that individual’s family, that’s really hard.
Rosenberg: I completely agree, and those are the types of people that I was looking for, and obviously you were too.
Yates: And that’s how you know that the department really carries on in that mission–when there are people who take that responsibility to heart and they internalize that, and that’s what they’re seeking. I remember Dave Margolis at the department used to say: it’s not the Department of Prosecutions, it’s the Department of Justice. And that’s what it is.
Rosenberg: David Margolis was my mentor and friend who passed away way too suddenly, way too young.
Rosenberg: But he had been the conscience of the Department of Justice for decades, and you and I both had the privilege of working with him.
Yates: And it was a privilege. I got to work with him every day when I served as deputy attorney general, and that was one of the real treats
Rosenberg: When you were U.S. attorney in Atlanta, there was a really interesting case from which your office was recused because it involved the prosecution of a sitting federal district judge in your district.
Rosenberg: Judge Camp. And the underlying facts are kind of tawdry and a little bit odd. He had become involved with an exotic dancer, and with drugs and guns, and so was properly prosecuted and he resigned from the federal bench. I’m more interested in what your office did as a result.
Yates: Well you’re right. We were recused from the criminal prosecution since he was a judge sitting in our district. I learned from main justice that was handling this, that they had learned about some statements that the judge had made in the course of his relationship with this woman, and what he had said was, was that he treated African-American defendants more harshly than he did white defendants. Apparently, there was some jealousy that he felt with respect to her and her boyfriend who was African-American, and this had engendered some sort of feeling in him and that caused him to express his bias against African-Americans to her.
Rosenberg: Which is a horrifying statement for anyone to make.
Rosenberg: But particularly for a federal district judge.
Yates: Right. And when we learned this, our reaction was: well, but he was sitting on the bench, presiding over trials, and you know, sentencing African-American defendants. And even though this wasn’t our case, we have a responsibility to do something about this.
Rosenberg: So, when you say this wasn’t our case, his prosecution wasn’t your case, but all those other cases he adjudicated sentence were your case.
Yates: Right. And some people thought: well no one will ever know this. Well, that’s not acceptable either.
Rosenberg: I mean, that’s not the standard.
Yates: No, no, no. Our thought was look, A: is look a we’ve got to do something about it, and B: we’ve got to tell people about this.
Rosenberg: So, what did you do?
Yates: I was so proud of the folks in her office because you know, I gathered our supervisors, you know, in my conference room and we spent hours as we were talking through what this meant, what the ramifications were, and what we could to do about it.
Rosenberg: By the way, at this point, you’re a relatively new United States attorney.
Yates: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. And again, this is not one of those problems you know, you learn in law school, or even along the way as an AUSA, of what you’re going to do about it. But, we knew that our responsibility, again, is to seek justice. And so, we were going to say that for any defendant who had his or her case adjudicated by Judge Camp, from the time that these statements were made, on, that person would get an automatic do-over before another judge. We were going to file another motion, and we were going to seek to have this heard again by a new judge
Rosenberg: Just for sentencing, or deeper than that?
Yates: He had not tried any cases during that time. There had only been acceptance of guilty pleas and sentencing. But we also knew that those kind of feelings, are not feelings that really just come up overnight, that that kind of racial animus is something that he could have been carrying around before that time as well. We said that for any defendant, at any time who wanted us to go back and review his case, and that meant read the entire transcript, you know, beginning to end–go back and review his or her case, and to look for any signs there, that animus, even predating this time, had infected it, that we would do that. And we went out publicly, actually, and held a press conference advising the public, first of this shocking information, but then at the same time, telling them what we were going to do about it. And I was so proud of the AUSAs in our office because I didn’t have to assign a single one of those cases for review. People raised their hands and volunteered to do it on top of everything else they had going on because they knew how absolutely essential it was that the public trust and have confidence in our criminal justice system, and that they couldn’t, under those circumstances, unless we took that on.
Rosenberg: That was exactly the part of the story I was hoping you would tell–that the men and women in your office volunteered for this duty.
Yates: Yeah. I mean that’s, that’s just humbling. And I didn’t have to get up there and sort of lay the guilt on or anything. That this was something that was inside of them that again they took their responsibility as representatives of the people so seriously that they were standing in line to do this.
Rosenberg: So, you had enough to cover the problem. Did anything change as a result?
Yates: There were some cases that were resentenced and sentences were changed and were lower, and whether that was cause of racial animus, or otherwise, it’s hard to ever know, but that’s the whole point: is that it can’t just be actual bias there. You have to have the appearance here of justice as well. And so, it was really, really important that the public have confidence in the system.
Rosenberg: I think that’s an incredibly important formulation. Our work has to be objectively fair and it has to appear to be fair, and having the first thing without the second thing is not sufficient.
Yates: No, it’s really not. And this could have been something that would have undermined how the public felt about the federal criminal justice system in our district. But I think because the AUSAs in my office were so willing to, as I said, raise their hands and do the right thing here, we worked through it. That’s not to say they didn’t have an impact. But I think that hopefully, people in the public saw that we took this seriously, and that we wanted to right the wrong there.
Rosenberg: What’s also interesting to me is that one bad judge with one horrific view of mankind can have such a ripple effect on the justice system and on so many lives. It’s still a system that is supported by people. And when people do things like he did
Rosenberg: The ramifications are significant.
Yates: They certainly are.
Rosenberg: President Obama nominated you to be the U.S. attorney, but also nominated you later to be the deputy attorney general of the United States.
Yates: How lucky am I?
Rosenberg: That’s quite an honor.
Yates: Oh my gosh, what a privilege.
Rosenberg: Well we should explain–you should explain what precisely that means. What does that job entail?
Yates: Well, it’s essentially the chief operating officer of the Department of Justice. The attorney general is obviously the top law enforcement officer for the entire country. But the deputy attorney general, acts as the CEO for a department of 113,000 employees, which includes, you know, not only all of the U.S. attorney’s offices across the country, all of the components at main justice, but also the law enforcement components as you well know from your time both at FBI and as the head of DEA. It includes FBI and DEA and the Marshal Service and the Bureau of Prisons. So, it’s, it’s a pretty big operation.
Rosenberg: Big job. Did you come to it with any ideas of what you would like to do? And I asked that because it tends to be a reactive job. There are so many issues every day that land on your desk and that require your immediate attention that even if you come with things you’d like to do, that’s sometimes hard to do.
Yates: I did come with some ideas because I was the last two years of the Obama administration and so maybe I had, in some ways, the luxury of a deadline. I knew that we only had two years there. Now, I’m talking about us here being that the Office of the deputy attorney general, to leave at the end of that two years and I think all we had done was really handle the emergencies, the crises, and there are plenty of those, but to handle those things that came across our desk. And so, I had some ideas of things I wanted to do, but also talked with people in DOJ, both the assistant AGs, as well as folks on my staff about what are some things that you think need to be done here how do we want to impact the department so there’s some things that are different when we leave, than they were when we walked in the door.
Rosenberg: Having worked for you, I remember well your interest in–
Yates: –you worked with me
Rosenberg: With you, and for you. But I remember well your interest in sentencing reform and prison reform, and also something that I’d like and I’d love for you to talk about–any or all of these things, but I recall your interest in implicit bias.
Yates: All of us carry around unconscious biases. It doesn’t mean that you’re a racist, it means that our brains have ways of making shortcuts, and we associate individuals with groups, and sometimes are overt biases here. I’m not to say that that there aren’t those things as well, but this unconscious bias seeps into how we make decisions. You know, that’s bad enough for regular people out there. But if you’re in law enforcement, or you’re a prosecutor, and you have an unconscious bias that is impacting how you’re making those decisions, those decisions that can impact people’s liberty, that’s something we need to do something about.
Rosenberg: So what did you want to do?
Yates: I wanted to train people. You know, we had learned that there is training that law enforcement officers and prosecutors around the country on the state level had been involved in, and that it can–at least, I’m not going to pretend that this fixes it, you can’t sort of say: “check, you know, “that’s not a problem anymore.” But it at least trains people and alerts them to the biases that they’re carrying with them, and gives people some tools to try to address it. And also, I think it’s important that the department is acknowledging that this is an issue, and that it’s an issue we need to try to combat, and we have a responsibility to do something about
Rosenberg: You know, and I think you’re right, Sally. Being aware of it is better than not being aware of it and whether or not it, sort of changes behavior, or makes people more sensitive to it–that’s still valuable.
Yates: Oh, absolutely and you know, again this is not something that you’re going to fix with a little training course here, but you know, that a lot of people came into this somewhat skeptically but I think from the feedback that we got when people actually went through the training, it opened their eyes to things that they didn’t really realize that they were doing.
Rosenberg: That was my sense too, that people who were somewhere between skeptical and apprehensive. But when they had the training, it opened up their eyes. Well that’s the goal.
Yates: And look, you were key among those who did some of this at the beginning. I think we needed to adjust along the way in terms of how to most effectively train law enforcement officers and prosecutors in ways that will be practical for them as well. And so, I don’t think you can just sort of take a training and say this is going to be it. You need to be willing to adapt to how it’s going to make it more effective and more useful.
Rosenberg: I’m glad you did that. Thank you.
Yates: Thank you for that. Thank you for participating in it.
Rosenberg: Oh, you bet. So, another thing near and dear to your heart was prison reform.
Yates: Absolutely. This actually started back when I was U.S. attorney, and we had started a program there where we were going to connect service providers with people who were coming out of state prisons at that time into our most challenging neighborhoods. And so, we had a program that we started, actually at the Lindsay Street Baptist Church there in English Avenue in Atlanta, and we had different service providers of housing and jobs and drug treatment and others that were there. And we had a form for the folks that were coming out of prison to fill out of what services that they needed. What was so striking to me, is we weren’t getting a lot of those forms back at the first meeting and I couldn’t figure out why. So. I went and sat down next to two gentlemen at church pew there and asked him why we hadn’t gotten their forms. And they kind of didn’t really answer, and then one quietly leaned over to me and said “I can’t read.” And I realized that there were a lot of folks in that room that couldn’t read. They weren’t going to raise their hands. You know, that’s humiliating for them to have to tell us that they can’t read. So that really spawned my interest to want to find out what are we doing to ensure that the people when they are in prison, that we are giving them those basic tools that they need to be able to be successful. Things like being able to read, the drug treatment that they need, the basic job training for jobs that will actually exist when they get out of prison, anger management, those things that are really absolutely essential for them to have just a fighting shot at being successful when they get out.
Rosenberg: And it’s interesting to me, Sally because we talked earlier about stigma, whether it was mental health or addiction. Illiteracy is another type of stigma.
Yates: My husband, who’s a lawyer, actually we met at King and Spalding, but he is the head of a school for children with learning disabilities and who are deaf and hard of hearing, but they also have a teacher training institute for children who come from poverty in particularly, generational lack of access to education. And so, I was very attuned to the literacy issues there as well, and the kind of impact that that can have on people’s lives for the rest of their lives.
Rosenberg: And so, what did you ask the Federal Bureau of Prisons to do?
Yates: So, we didn’t have a lot of time, so we had some consultants come in, and we looked at a whole variety of things: we looked at education, we looked at the job training that we were doing, and importantly the halfway houses, and the kind of services that were being provided there. And on the education side, we began a system there, of essentially building a school district within the Federal Bureau of Prisons that would first, assess each individual when he or she is coming in to the federal prison system, to find out where they are in that educational continuum. Is this somebody who could benefit from post-secondary, or is this someone we need to teach to read, or do they need to be able to get a high school diploma, that would first assess them, and then be able to tailor the educational things that were provided to them to what their needs were. And we had started a pilot project actually through tablets, essentially recognized iPads, that could be used in their cells because you know, at the time, all that really all that existed in the Bureau of Prisons for the most part was a GED prep course. It was a waiting list. Thousands and thousands of inmates long to be able to get into that GED prep course. And if you were lucky enough for that, all you got was an hour a day of education. What I found was is that incentives are good and all, but we didn’t have an issue with incentivizing individuals in prison to want to participate. They, they were bright they were begging to get in to these programs. we just didn’t have the resources to provide the services. And so, with a declining prison population, as we were adjusting drug sentencing there, we were able to essentially reprogram some of that money into the educational services
Rosenberg: Because the truth is, Sally, that the overwhelming percentage of people who go to prison, re-enter society.
Yates: Yes, like 95 percent.
Rosenberg: We don’t want them to go back.
Yates: You can look at it from various different perspectives, but this is one of the smartest things that we can do from a public safety standpoint. We know what recidivism rates are now, about 66 percent. We know that those drop dramatically if an individual is able to engage in meaningful education programs, and even more than that, if on top of that, they have meaningful job training programs. And so, it’s not just doing something nice for people who are in prison–it’s the smartest thing we can do to make our communities more safe.
Rosenberg: Toward the end of the Obama administration, the attorney general, Loretta Lynch, your direct boss, resigned, President Trump, sworn into office and his nominee for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has not yet been confirmed by the Senate. And so, for 240 hours, for 10 days, Sally Yates, you were the acting attorney general of the United States.
Yates: Yeah, well there’s a tradition at the Department of Justice that the deputy attorney general stays on as the acting A.G. during a transition. And you know, it’s important, Chuck in any agency for there to be continuity, but given the national security and the law enforcement responsibilities at DOJ, it’s particularly important. And so, Eric Holder had done it when he served as DAG between the Clinton and Bush administrations, so I was happy to do it during this time as well.
Rosenberg: When you spoke at Harvard Law School in 2017 at its class day exercises, you said the defining moments in our lives often don’t come with advance warning. During your ten days as acting attorney general, President Trump issued an executive order: 13769, which restricted travel to the United States from seven, predominantly Muslim, countries. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Yates: Yes, I mean this was entirely unexpected. There’s this tradition that I just mentioned, but there’s another tradition too, and that is that nothing happens during this time that you’re serving as the acting attorney general. And so, I was actually leaving the White House the afternoon of 27th after having been there talking with them about the situation with General Flynn and Ambassador Kislyak, and learned from my principal deputy from a phone call because he read on the New York Times Web site that the president had signed this travel ban that we didn’t know anything about. There had been no interagency process that you would normally have to try to figure out what it is the administration is trying to accomplish, and how you could go about doing that.
Rosenberg: So, what did you do?
Yates: Well, we spent the weekend, actually, trying to get our arms around what it was they were trying to accomplish. This was travel ban one, we’re on travel ban three now, but travel ban one actually applied to people, for example, who had valid visas and who were lawful permanent residents in our country. And so, we had lawyers who had to be in court that very next morning, Saturday morning
Rosenberg: To enforce the president’s executive order.
Yates: Right. Because there were people who were literally in the air as the president signs this executive order that then were being turned away from the country when they landed here. So, we spent the weekend lots of discussions with the White House trying to, again, sort of figure out who’s in and who’s out because it was not clear at all from the face of this executive order what that was. And then on Monday morning I learned that that on Tuesday morning, the judge wanted the position of the Department of Justice on the constitutionality and the lawfulness of this executive order.
Rosenberg: And that’s your responsibility, right? What was your view on its constitutionality?
Yates: Well, I had been over the weekend, and through that Monday morning, reading all of the challenges going on and reading the cases. I mean Chuck, you know from your experience at DOJ, normally for something by the time it gets to the deputy attorney general, even the an acting A.G., lots of people have reviewed it and distilled it. There’s no time for any of that. You know, we’re just having to read the raw information. And so, I wanted to hear from the people in the department, both the career people and the Trump appointees, about what those challenges were, and how we would defend those challenges. I wanted to hear their views as well. So, I call them all into the conference room. We have a big meeting and we start going through the challenges in what our position would have to be on this.
Rosenberg: Does it seem to you that this executive order of the presidents was motivated by a religious animus against Muslims?
Yates: That that’s what became really clear to me: is that to defend this, I was going to have to send Department of Justice lawyers into court to take the position that this executive order had absolutely nothing to do with religion. And that’s despite all the statements that the president made, not just on the campaign trail, but statements he had made after that as well, after he was elected. And that was in the face of the fact that this only applied to Muslim majority countries, but yet, provided priority for Christians, in this instance, to send them in to advance a pretext. And I don’t think any lawyer should do that. And I sure don’t think that Department of Justice lawyers should.
Rosenberg: Here’s the fascinating thing to me: traditionally, if a senior official is put in that position, they have a binary choice to enforce the law as the president has promulgated it, or to resign. And I know you weighed both of those options, but you came up with a third way, a middle way.
Yates: I did struggle over it. I mean, I didn’t get to struggle long, it was 72 hours from the time I learned about this until then I needed to make a decision. But I did. And you’re right, that was that was something that might have been sort of the more obvious course to take. But, here’s the thing, Chuck, is that I wasn’t the head of the civil division or you know, one of the other components of the department. I was the acting attorney general of the United States. I was responsible for the entire Department of Justice. And I actually remembered my confirmation hearing when there were a number of senators that were asking me at the time, what will you do if the president asks you to do something that’s unlawful, or unconstitutional, or even that would bring dishonor to the Department of Justice.
Rosenberg: Didn’t Senator Jeff Sessions ask you that question?
Yates: He absolutely was one of the primary. He wasn’t alone, but he was one of the ones who was really pushing me on this now. They had a different president in mind at the time, because President Obama was in office. But you know, they weren’t saying will you resign if the president asks you to do something that’s unlawful or unconstitutional. They asked me will you say no. And I told him then at the time, that I would. And to me, doing something less than that, just resigning, maybe that protects my personal integrity, but it’s not protecting the Department of Justice, and as the acting attorney general, I believe that that that was my responsibility.
Rosenberg: You know, Sally, it’s interesting to me because I held the binary view that either you follow the order or you resign. I came to believe that I was wrong and you were right that by staying, and by refusing an unlawful order, you were better serving the Department of Justice. I changed my mind about that, and I wanted to tell you that I wanted to tell our listeners that too because taking that unusual path taking that third option, is not easy is it.
Yates: No, I mean you know, this this whole thing again is happening in a very compressed period of time. But you know, Chuck, I mean, you’ve made difficult decisions over the course of your life in your career. Now, I remember you know talking with everybody in that conference room and then just going into my office and closing the door and thinking about this. Once you make a decision like this, I think oftentimes you kind of know in your gut whether–you know, whether it’s the right thing to do. And while I certainly knew there was going to be a storm after doing, it I felt a real calm about the decision.
Rosenberg: Is that where you came to that final decision, in your office, and by yourself?
Yates: Certainly, I’d talked with other people, and I talked with Matt, who was there
Rosenberg: Matt ax—
Yates: –Matt Axelrod,
Rosenberg: Principal deputy.
Yates: Right. Right
Rosenberg: Very talented guy.
Yates: Oh, he’s, he’s fantastic. Just, just the best. And so certainly you know, had talked with a lot of people in this. But ultimately, I didn’t want to put that off on any of them. They can give me their views on things, but I needed to own that decision.
Rosenberg: You were fired
Rosenberg: How did you learn you had been fired?
Yates: Well, I was still in the office working. It was you know, several hours after this. And I did know it was a possibility. You know if I if I wasn’t smart enough to figure that out I shouldn’t have that job. But I will also tell you, I hoped that wouldn’t happen. I had spent 27 years at DOJ. I love the Department of Justice. I love what it stands for. And I did not want to end my service there with being fired. But to have done anything other than that, I think would have been a betrayal of everything that I felt like all of those years before had stood for.
Rosenberg: When you were actually fired, were you sad?
Yates: Yeah, I was. You know, it comes with a knock on the door. Matt had a door that opens into, what was then my office.
Rosenberg: And I know that door well because I once had Matt’s office as my own right.
Yates: Yeah. And you know that role, too. And you know how essential that role is. And I’m sure it was like this for you. You know how like when you’re close to somebody you kind of knock on the door and open it at the same time.
Yates: That’s what Matt and I always did going in and out of each other’s offices. But when the knock came this time, the door didn’t open. So, I knew that–you know, went to the door and Matt was there with a member of the Trump administration who had a letter from the White House to deliver to me actually felt sorry for him. He was at DOJ appointee there and he’s a good guy, and he was doing his job. So, you know he hands me the letter, and I think I may have thanked him. I’m not sure, which is kind of–I don’t recall precisely there, and sort of closed the door. And the reality of that sort of hits at that moment. It was great. You know, there were people that from the office that sort of came back, some did it to walk me out, and folks from my detail that were there, so I sort of gathered some of my things. But you know, I didn’t pick up the whole office folks were nice enough to do that for me. You know, walked out of my office, and down the stairs, and out the doors of the Department of Justice.
Rosenberg: You pick up some of your stuff, you put it in a box, you walk out you get a car, and they drive you home right and that’s it that’s it. Maybe that’s not it. I hope there’s a second act or a third act.
Yates: Well, look, the ability to serve in the Department of Justice as a line AUSA as U.S. attorney as deputy attorney general, and ever so briefly as acting attorney general, was the honor of my life, and I will always be grateful for that opportunity.
Rosenberg: And I can tell you on behalf of the men and women who served with you and for you, we were better for it, and extraordinarily proud of what you did.
Yates: Thank you, Chuck.
Rosenberg: Sally, thank you so much for joining us.
Yates: I’ve really enjoyed it. Next time, I get to ask you the questions.
Rosenberg: We’ll see about that.
My thanks to Sally Yates for joining us today on the Oath. She’s a wonderful guest, as you heard, and I’m very grateful to her. And my thanks to all of our listeners who wrote to us and asked that Sally Yates be on the show. Please continue to give us your feedback. Let us know who else you would like us to have as guests on the show. You can give us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week on the Oath, I sit down with Nicolle Wallace: the host of MSNBC’s Deadline White House, and the former director of communications for President George W. Bush.
The Oath is a production of NBC News and MSNBC. This podcast was produced by FannieCo, with Fannie Cohen, Nic Bannon, and Rob Hebert. Lauren Chadwick and Laurel Hyneman provided production support. Our senior producer is Barbara Raab and Steve Licktieg is our Executive Producer.
This is the Oath with Chuck Rosenberg. Thank you so very much for listening.