Sally Yates on Tuesday became a notable asterisk in Washington’s descent into bipolar political chaos, galvanizing a left wing that sees her as a hero and a right wing that views her as a pariah.
Yates, the longtime Atlanta prosecutor, was summarily fired by President Donald Trump late Monday after 10 days as acting U.S. attorney general. A few hours earlier, she had instructed Justice Department lawyers not to defend Trump’s executive order barring refugees’ entry into the country.
By Tuesday, Georgia Democrats were sizing up Yates for statewide office, and Georgia Republicans were denouncing her as a political hack. Yates, 56, is now expected to return to her native Atlanta, where she served for 25 years as a corruption-busting federal prosecutor.
Just hours after Yates found herself unemployed, numerous Democrats, from rank-and-file activists to veteran strategists, joined the chorus of those trying to recruit her to run for statewide office. Many cast Yates as a unifying figure who could raise mounds of campaign cash and appeal to independent voters.
Jeff DiSantis, who ran Democrat Michelle Nunn’s failed 2014 U.S. Senate campaign, said the 2018 election is shaping up as a referendum on the Trump agenda. Yates could be an ideal candidate to prosecute that case, he said.
“Elections for major office are in large part a character test and someone with a law enforcement background and a record of having principles and courage would make a great candidate for governor,” DiSantis said.
Yates, though, was mum on her intentions. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and those close to her would not say whether she was contemplating a bid for public office.
Trump took some parting shots at Yates when he replaced her on Monday. Yates, the White House said, had “betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.”
Kent Alexander, who was U.S. attorney in Atlanta as a Democratic appointee in the mid-1990s, said Yates was within her right in deciding the travel ban was indefensible and Trump had every right to fire her because she served at the pleasure of the president.
“What surprised me was that they said she ‘betrayed the Department of Justice,’” Alexander said. “Whoever wrote that doesn’t know Sally Yates. Sally would be the last person on my list of someone who would even think of betraying the Department of Justice.”
Atlanta lawyer Joe Whitley, who also served as Yates’ boss as U.S. attorney in the early 1990s, said Yates’ accomplishments as a federal prosecutor “are incredible by any measure.” But Whitley also said he believed Trump’s executive order was constitutionally valid.
“The president has broad authority to deal with immigration at border crossings,” said Whitley, appointed by President George W. Bush as the first general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security. “The problem was how the order was implemented. It didn’t have enough vetting or advance notice.”
As for Yates’ decision not to defend it, Whitley said, “I’m confident she felt like it was the right thing to do and whatever she did, she did for the right reasons.”
Trump replaced Yates with Dana Boente, a U.S. attorney in Virginia. Boente immediately rescinded Yates’ directive.
President Barack Obama picked Yates to be his deputy attorney general in January 2015. Yates became acting attorney general on Inauguration Day and was to hold the post until Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee, won Senate confirmation. That could happen later this week.
During Yates’ confirmation hearing in 2015, Sessions asked Yates a question that has now become an Internet sensation.
“Do you think the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that’s improper?” Sessions asked.
“Senator,” Yates replied, “I believe that the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution, and to give their independent legal advice to the president.”
On Tuesday, Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who supported Yates’ nomination to be deputy attorney general, said, “Refusing to defend the United States is irresponsible. … It is refreshing to see President Trump take action immediately instead of acting like a typical politician.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, went even farther.
“She showed herself to be a political hack, and hacks have to be jacked,” Gohmert said, according to published reports. “She violated her oath. She needed to go.”
A Georgia GOP activist said Yates’ decision will come back to haunt her no matter what she does next.
“She failed to do her job — there’s no question about it,” said Conrad Quagliaroli, a member of the Cherokee Tea Party. “The hateful left will make heroes out of her and raise a ton of money off her. But Republicans won’t forget.”
But Yates’ supporters say she did the right thing.
“The Oval Office is not the set of some reality show,” said Dubose Porter, chair of the state Democratic Party. “(Trump) can’t just say ‘you’re fired’ when someone stands up for the rule of law. This is not our America, and we need more patriots just like Sally Yates to take a stand.”
Seth C. Clark, a veteran Democratic political strategist, said Yates can help Democrats regain power.
“The biggest problem Democrats have in the state of Georgia is this elusive white vote that we’ve been chasing since Sonny Perdue won,” he said. “And I’ll tell you, a woman who prosecuted a whole bunch of Atlanta politicians, with Republican support and now a full-throated stand against Donald Trump – well, that might be the magic bullet.”
Whether Yates decides to enter politics and seek statewide office is an open question. She could easily land a lucrative position at any number of top law firms. She could become a college professor. She could head a national nonprofit.
But she’s already become part of U.S. political history as one of the few top prosecutors to be fired by a sitting U.S. president.
Whatever Yates does next may be a difficult transition because she’s leaving a job she’s loved.
In a 2013 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Yates said she was “incredibly lucky” to be the U.S. attorney in Atlanta.
“I realize that we’re not doing Mother Teresa’s work here at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but I do think what we’re doing makes a difference. I’ve told folks when I’m recruiting them here that it’s worth every penny you don’t make.”
She added: “I know this sounds incredibly corny, but I absolutely believe it — the thrill that comes with saying that you represent the people of the United States, there’s no greater honor that you can have as a lawyer.”