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Ex-acting AG Sally Yates: Presidential standards should be higher than 'everything short of a felony is OK'

Key Points
  • Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates said President Trump has violated political norms by breaching the wall between the Justice Department and the White House.
  • Former U.S. attorney for New York Preet Bharara was fired after being asked to remain in his role by the administration, he says.
  • They spoke at Vanity Fair's "New Establishment Summit" in Los Angeles.
Preet Bharara, former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and former US Attorney Sally Yates speaking at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit on Oct. 4th, 2017.
Source: Vanity Fair

Sally Yates and Preet Bharara, both Obama-era former officials ousted by the Trump administration, offered candid criticisms of the president at Vanity Fair's "New Establishment Summit" in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

Yates, briefly the acting attorney general for the new administration, said that the most troubling effect of Donald Trump's presidency has been the erosion of norms and traditions that prior presidents sought to protect.

The administration has jeopardized the norm that "the White House and the president has absolutely nothing to do with criminal investigations or prosecutions. Period," she said.

"What we have seen happen here is the president not just chip away at the wall, but breach the wall between DOJ and the White House on an investigation that reaches directly into the White House," Yates said, citing Trump's conduct toward former FBI Director James Comey and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Yates was fired in January after refusing to carry out the president's first attempt to restrict travel from a handful of predominantly Muslim countries.

She described learning about the travel ban through her assistant, who first read the news on The New York Times website. "That was how we found out about it," Yates said.

Surely our standard of conduct for our president of what's acceptable to us is not just like 'everything short of a felony is OK'
Sally Yates
Former acting attorney general

The subsequent decision-making process left Yates "not satisfied" with the legality and constitutionality of the ban, she said. She decided to defy the ban rather than resign in order to protect the integrity of the Justice Department.

"I felt like I needed to do my job, and in this instance that meant directing the Department of Justice not to defend the travel ban," Yates said.

The White House, in a statement following Yates' firing, said she was "weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration" and that she had "betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States."

Months later, Trump appeared to imply Yates leaked classified information, a recurrent source of frustration and intrigue for his administration. The suggestion followed her testimony at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Russian election interference.

Both speakers on the panel, entitled "All the President's Bombshells: Law in the Age of Trump," detailed their respective firings from the Trump administration, as well the FBI investigation directed by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Yates described Mueller as eminently qualified to lead the investigation. She added that the question of "bad" conduct from the president relates to ethical and behavioral standards as much as the question of whether laws were broken.

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testifies about potential Russian interference in the presidential election before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., U.S. May 8, 2017.
Aaron P. Bernstein | Reuters

"Surely our standard of conduct for our president of what's acceptable to us is not just like 'everything short of a felony is OK,'" she said.

Yates and Bharara were grandfathered into the Trump administration before being pushed out of their respective roles.

Bharara, former U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, was one of 46 attorneys dismissed by the Trump administration in March.

The news came as a surprise to Bharara, who Trump reportedly asked in November to stay in the role.

Former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara attends the Senate Intelligence Committee where FBI Director James Comey is sent to testify in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill June 8, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Getty Images

He said that he likely would have ended up resigning anyway.

"Having a sense of the guy's character," Bharara said, referring to Trump, "I think that's what would have happened."

Bharara has since been a vocal Trump critic, voicing his opposition in a variety of media formats. Bharara has been candid about his political views on his personal Twitter account, and was hired by CNN as a senior legal analyst in September. He launched a podcast, "Stay Tuned With Preet," in September.

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