By Claire Zillman
May 26, 2017

Former acting U.S. attorney general Sally Yates was fired by President Donald Trump in late January after refusing to defend his travel ban—the second iteration of which an appeals court refused to reinstate yesterday.

Yates has had nearly four full months to reflect on her termination, which catapulted the career prosecutor into the role of liberal darling in a matter of minutes. She shared what she’s learned from the experience with graduates of Harvard Law School on Wednesday.

She said determining her response to Trump’s travel ban forced her to decide who she was and what she stood for.

“I was in the car on the way to the airport late in the afternoon on Friday, January 27 when I learned from media reports that the president had signed an executive order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries,” she recalled. “It was the first we’d heard of it, but we knew we’d need Department of Justice lawyers in courts all over the country defending it within a matter of hours.”

She soon learned that the DOJ would have to take a position on the constitutionality of the order, and she concluded that defending the ban would require arguing that it had nothing to do with religion despite prior statements by the president and his surrogates about his intent to effectuate a Muslim ban. She couldn’t come to terms with such a “pretext” so she directed the DOJ to not defend the ban, which led to her immediate firing.

It was an “unexpected moment,” she said, when law and conscience intersected and demanded that she make a decision. She said her 27 years at the DOJ and input from mentors and colleagues shaped how she responded.

She assured the graduates that they’d find themselves in similar situations. Their experience might not be as public as her own, but the internal conflict would be no less agonizing. She advised graduates to prepare for those moments by allowing for introspection to determine what it is they value, because—as she put it—”you never know when you’re going to be called to answer that question.”

 

@clairezillman

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