Politics & Policy

Why Yates Had to Go

Then-Deputy Attorney General Yates on Capitol Hill, July 2015. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)

It is a very simple proposition. Our Constitution vests all executive power — not some of it, all of it — in the president of the United States. Executive-branch officials do not have their own power. They are delegated by the president to execute his power. If they object to the president’s policies, their choice is clear: salute and enforce the president’s directives, or honorably resign. There is no third way.

No one knows this better than high-ranking officials of the Department of Justice. That is why President Trump was right to fire Acting Attorney General Sally Yates.

Over the weekend, President Trump issued an executive order temporarily restricting the admission into the United States of aliens from various Muslim-majority countries, as well as aliens from Syria and elsewhere who are claiming refugee status. Naturally, this has triggered protests by Democrats and the Left. They erroneously claim that Trump’s executive order violates the Constitution, statutory law, American tradition, and human decency.

For inexplicable reasons, the new president left Yates in place to run the Justice Department in anticipation of the confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions. A faithful Obama-appointed progressive, Yates obviously knew which way the political wind was blowing in her tribe.

Like most Democrats, Yates objects to the president’s executive order. Fair enough. But she is not a political operative, she was a Justice Department official — the highest such official. If her opposition to the president’s policy was as deeply held as she says, her choice was clear: enforce the president’s policy or quit.

Instead, she chose insubordination: Knowing she would be out the moment Senator Sessions is confirmed, she announced on Monday night that the Justice Department would not enforce the president’s order. She did not issue this statement on the grounds that the order is illegal. She declined to take a definitive position on that question. She rested her decision, rather, on her disagreement with the justice of the order. Now, she’ll be a left-wing hero, influential beyond her heretofore status as a nameless bureaucrat. But she had to go.

To make an analogy, there are many federal judges who oppose abortion. They apply Roe v. Wade even though they disagree with it intensely, because their duty is to obey superior courts. As every official in the Justice Department knows, if one disagrees with the law one is called upon to apply, or the policy one is bound to enforce, one is free to resign. Staying on while undermining government policy is not an act of courage. It is an act of sabotage.

It was foolish of President Trump to leave officials such as Acting Attorney General Yates in place. The president has issued a raft of executive orders in his first eight days. His obvious intent is to change governance significantly, which means he needs entirely new personnel. Yates never should have been in the position to undertake her grandstanding in the first place — but at least that particular error has now been corrected.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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