Let us now praise a class act.
Amidst the turmoil of another chaotic week in Trump world, the Comey firing and a pandemic of Washington spinelessness, there was a certain righteous symmetry that occurred Sunday night and Monday afternoon.
On Sunday, May 7, former President Barack Obama received the 2017 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award from the Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation.
In his acceptance speech, Obama reflected on those public servants who, in the face of opposition, hold onto their principles and somehow keep alive their resolve, he said, “ . . . To maintain a reputation for integrity that is stronger than a desire to maintain office, a conscience, personal standard of ethics, integrity, morality that is stronger than the pressures of public disapproval or party disapproval, a faith that the right course would ultimately be vindicated, a faith that overcame fear of public reprisal.”
These are rare men and women indeed, and harder to find by the day, but here’s the symmetrical part. On the very next day after Obama’s speech we all got to meet one of them: Sally Yates, a 27-year Justice Department veteran and—briefly—acting US attorney general.
Yates is an American hero, and on Monday, May 8, she and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee what they knew about Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and his dalliance with Russia—or at least as much as they could without revealing confidential information.
You know the story: A prosecutor and deputy attorney general, Yates was made acting AG to keep the office up and running until Jefferson Beauregard Sessions was confirmed as Trump’s choice for the job. On Jan. 26, less than a week after Donald Trump’s swearing-in, she went to his White House counsel Donald McGahn and told him that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence and others about his contacts with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. Contrary to what he told Pence, Flynn had spoken with Kislyak about lifting sanctions President Obama had imposed on Russia for interfering in our presidential election.
Yates explained to the senators at the hearing that she had told McGahn that “the underlying conduct Gen. Flynn had engaged in was problematic in and of itself,” but the fact that the Russians knew he was dissembling “created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”
Yet McGahn, Trump and others in the White House did nothing for more than two weeks, until the story leaked to The Washington Post and they were forced to fire Flynn.
In the meantime, Yates had been let go, too, for telling Justice Department lawyers not to enforce Trump’s executive order imposing a travel ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries. She believed it was unlawful and unconstitutional, and at first was not even officially told by the White House about the ban—she had to find out from the media. Yates was fired for the courage of her convictions.
Since then, the Trump administration has tried to downplay Yates’ warnings about Flynn, painted her as a partisan flunky and on the morning of the hearing, Trump himself aimed his goofy Twitter machine gun directly at her, trying to divert attention while casting doubt on her veracity and integrity. But his dum-dum bullets—not to mention the foolhardy attacks of Republican senators during their questioning of her—could neither intimidate nor shake Yates from her certainty and commitment to the truth.
Particularly egregious were freshman Sen. John Neely Kennedy from Louisiana and the Texas duo of John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, all of whom felt the need to mansplain the Constitution to Yates—a serious error on their parts. Cruz especially, whose oleaginous condescension has made him pals on both sides of the aisle, tried to run rings around her. After an unsuccessful attempt to turn the hearing into a rehash of Hillary Clinton’s email problems, he asked if Yates was familiar with 8 USC Section 1182, part of the United States code of laws specifically related to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
Yates said that off the top of her head she was not, which Cruz thought gave him a hunting license to go for the kill on her travel ban decision. Well, he sneered, “It certainly is a relevant and not a terribly obscure statute. By the express text of the statute, it says, quote, ‘Whenever the president finds that entry of any alien or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interest of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem appropriate.’ Would you agree that is broad statutory authorization?”
“I would, and I am familiar with that,” Yates replied, and then bent the barrel of Elmer Fudd Cruz’s shotgun back in his face:
“And I’m also familiar with an additional provision of the INA that says no person shall receive preference or be discriminated against an issuance of a visa because of race, nationality or place of birth, that I believe was promulgated after the statute that you just quoted. And that’s been part of the discussion with the courts, with respect to the INA, is whether this more specific statute trumps the first one that you just described. But my concern was not an INA concern here. It, rather, was a constitutional concern, whether or not this—the executive order here violated the Constitution, specifically with the establishment clause and equal protection and due process.”
Bazinga, senator. Case closed.
Now contrast her behavior with that of Michael Flynn, who, after Obama dismissed him as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), started a consulting business specializing in intelligence and security, but seemed to come somewhat unglued. Increasingly paranoid when it came to Islamic extremism (especially about Iran) and given to dark conspiracy theories, he is under investigation for possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and payments received from Russia and agents of the Turkish government. He placed personal gain above country, and yet Trump kept giving him greater and greater responsibility, even considering him as a possible vice presidential running mate.
Just a couple of days after he won the election, Trump was warned by President Obama not to hire Flynn, but in typical fashion, the president-elect apparently rejected Obama’s advice as sour grapes from a loser. But so concerned were Obama staff members about Flynn and other Trump staff who allegedly had been in contact with Russia that they withheld from them until the last minute news of the plan to expel 35 Russians believed to be spies and shut down two diplomatic enclaves near New York and Washington. Obama’s people feared Trump might tip the Russians off.
Even after Sally Yates had delivered the bad news about his lies, Flynn stayed in his job, making personnel and policy decisions at the National Security Council, even sitting in at the Oval Office as Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Once sacked, Trump still insisted that Flynn was “a wonderful man” who was treated “very, very unfairly by the media. As I call it, the fake media in many cases.”
So what magical hold did—and maybe still does—Flynn have on Trump? Why was he kept on for those extra 18 days when rational people knew he was poison? And how much longer will it take to get to the truth, especially now that FBI Director James Comey has been fired and a complete honest investigation of the Russian scandal and the Trump team’s association with it may be in jeopardy?
Sally Yates’ steadfast grace under pressure and willingness to uphold the principles of democracy over discrimination and grandstanding especially stood out last week in the wake of the Comey dismissal. With few exceptions, Republicans ran for cover and continued to pretend that their standard bearer hasn’t spent too much time on the Tilt-a-Whirl. No profiles in courage there.
Coincidentally, it was another woman—a Republican—Margaret Chase Smith, senator from Maine, who in 1950 dared speak out against the outrages of Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-WI) as he attempted to trash the country much the way that Trump desires now. “I speak as an American,” she said. “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.”
By their silence, most of today’s Republicans are trying to do just that. They will allow Trump to keep making outrageous statements and decisions, permit him to continue batting out his malicious tweets and project onto others the malevolent thoughts and deeds that really are his own. Together they will continue to malign upstanding Americans like Sally Yates.
For now, at least. Because as noted in the book after which the Profile in Courage Award is named, a true democracy ultimately recognizes right. We live in hope.
Sally Q. Yates did what was right. So shines a good deed in a weary world. Maybe we should demand that she be made special prosecutor or put her in charge of that independent commission to investigate Trump and Russia. Talk about righteous symmetry.
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.