Sally Yates said on Tuesday that “folks ought to have tremendous confidence” in Bob Mueller, the former FBI director who is leading the Department of Justice investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Yates, the former acting attorney general who was fired by President Trump in January, said Mueller “is the consummate professional. He is going to call it like he sees it. He’s going to do this the right way.”
Yates has many reasons to be suspicious of the Trump administration. In the week after the president’s inauguration, Yates found out via The New York Times that the White House had instituted a travel ban on citizens and refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries. She had to “furiously” search for details on the internet from a car on the way to the airport, she said during an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. After a hectic weekend of chaos and protests at multiple American airports, Yates determined that she wasn’t comfortable defending the constitutionality of the ban: It “would require me to send lawyers into court to say this ban had nothing to do with religion,” she said. “I did not believe that to be a defense that was grounded in truth.” Shortly thereafter, she was fired from her post.
The incident led many to argue that the neutrality of the Justice Department was under attack. Although Yates was a political appointee, she was also a 27-year department veteran who claimed she had made her decision based on her legal judgment. When Mueller was appointed, those fears and questions emerged again about whether he would be allowed to conduct a thorough, neutral investigation into the Russia affair.
Yates doesn’t seem to think these fears are justified. She said she believes in Mueller and expressed “total confidence in the career men and women who are at the Department of Justice.”
“You have got thousands and thousands of career-DOJ people that are there that care deeply about the mission and the integrity of the Department of Justice,” she said. “There are also good Trump appointees at the Department of Justice now as well. I don’t think all is lost at DOJ. It’s going to withstand anything” in the coming months.
The real problem is different, Yates said: “There are facts here that should be alarming to us as a country that fall short of facts that would establish a basis for impeachment or for prosecution.” While Mueller is investigating whether any federal crimes were committed, which could potentially be grounds for prosecution or impeachment, “surely that’s not our bar,” she said. “That’s not the standard of conduct that we’re looking for from our president or our administration. It shouldn’t just be whether they committed a felony or not.”
No matter whether Trump has committed a crime, his administration has undermined long-standing practices of neutrality, respect, and integrity among the various agencies and branches of government, she said. “It’s not just that the president is making comments undermining the legitimacy of judges who issue opinions he doesn’t like,” she said:
We have got a delicate balance there between the three branches of government, and that balance has served us pretty darn well for many, many years now. The idea that that balance is being thrown out of kilter by not just disagreeing with what a court might do, but attempting to de-legitimize it … it concerns me that that can be really destructive and be further divisive.
“While I have total confidence in Bob Mueller and his ability to conduct this investigation,” she added, “I don’t think we should be putting all of our hopes in, ‘That will tell us whether anything bad happened here.’”
Yates wouldn’t comment on whether Mike Flynn, the former national-security adviser, should be given immunity for any involvement in potential collusion with the Russian government, even though she was acting attorney general when the FBI began probing him and likely has some knowledge of the case. “I don’t think I should be telling Bob Mueller how he should be doing his investigation,” she said, “so I’m going to defer on whether Mike Flynn should be given immunity or not.”
She also didn’t say what she’ll be doing next, but she once again ruled out launching her own political campaign—something her liberal fans have fantasized about. “Running for office [has] just never been anything that I could picture myself doing,” she said.
Trump may have kicked Yates out of her office, and she may not be stepping back into government any time soon. But even after her infamous exit, at least she has confidence in the people she left behind.
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