Yates was confirmed as deputy attorney general by the Senate in January 2015. Before taking the number-two position at the Justice Department, she worked as a career prosecutor who served as the U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Georgia. Former colleagues described her as someone who worked well with both sides of the aisle.
By placing the Justice Department in direct defiance of the president, albeit perhaps only briefly, Yates’s decision evoked parallels to other major clashes between the White House and the government’s lawyers. Perhaps the most infamous incident was the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, when President Richard Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox and forced the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.
“Now that’s she’s been fired, it does resemble it even more,” said David Greenberg, a Rutgers University history professor. “There’s still differences: She was a civil servant who was filling in because Trump’s appointee hadn’t been confirmed.
“But I think it also needs to be weighed against the fact we’re only 10 days into Trump’s presidency and we already have this kind of behavior,” Greenberg said. “It suggests the same kind of out-of-control need to assert power that Nixon showed and that Trump has always showed, but that I think he’s demonstrated more vividly than ever with this.”
Matthew Miller, a former spokesman for the Justice Department during the Obama administration, said the decision to fire Yates would have troubling consequences.
“It says that if you exercise your independent legal judgment and it contradicts what the president wants you to do, he will fire you,” Miller said. “This is a major violation of Justice’s traditional independence that will send chills down the spine of everyone there.”
Observers on Twitter quickly noted an exchange between Sessions and Yates from March of 2015, during her confirmation hearing.
“It tends to be a political world at the top of the Department of Justice,” Sessions noted at the beginning of his questioning. “Do you think the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that’s improper? A lot of people have defended the [Loretta] Lynch nomination [by President Obama] for example, by saying, ‘Well, he appoints somebody who’s gonna execute his views, what’s wrong with that?’ But if the views he wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?”
“Senator, I feel the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution, and give their independent legal advice to the president,” Yates said.
Later, Sessions recounted Bush-era Attorney General John Ashcroft’s refusal to sign off on a surveillance program deemed illegal by the Justice Department. “I hope you feel free to say no in the character of John Ashcroft and others who said no to President Nixon,” he told Yates.