Speed Reads

History Lesson

Watch Jeff Sessions urge the attorney general Trump just fired to resist a president's unlawful orders

On Monday evening, acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed Justice Department lawyers that as long as she headed the DOJ, its lawyers "will not present arguments in defense of the executive order" President Trump issued on immigration from seven Muslim nations because she's not "convinced that the executive order is lawful." President Trump promptly fired her, saying Yates "has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order."

Yates had been planning to leave the department a few days after the Senate confirmed Trump's nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), and she reportedly knew her letter could lead to her early termination. But sometimes "the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that's improper." That last quote is from Jeff Sessions — whose protégés reportedly wrote Trump's executive order — talking to Yates at her deputy attorney general Senate confirmation hearing in March 2015. "If the views a president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or deputy attorney general say no?" Sessions asked. "Senator, I believe that the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution," Yates replied.

Sessions went on to compare the president to a business executive. "Sometimes, the lawyers have to tell the CEOs, Mr. CEO, don't do that, we'll get us sued," he said. "It's going to be in violation of the law. You'll regret it. Please. No matter how headstrong they might be, do you feel like that's the duty of the attorney general's office?" Yates said yes.

Before wrapping up, Sessions strolled down memory lane: "I remember John Ashcroft, attorney general for Bush, he's been celebrated, when he was in the hospital, they tried to get him to sign a document that dealt with terrorism that he thought went too far, he refused to do so. So, I hope that you feel free to say no, in the character of John Ashcroft and others who said no to President Nixon on certain issues." Ashcroft was consulted in the hospital, Sessions did not mention, because Bush was first turned down by the acting attorney general, James Comey, who is now head of the FBI. You can watch the entire Sessions-Yates exchange at C-SPAN.