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Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates’ memo ordering Justice Department staff not to enforce President Trump’s Executive Order (EO) on immigration set off my baloney-detection meter well before I was halfway into it. The same alarm sounded due to claims that her subsequent firing bore any resemblance whatever to the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” during Watergate days. And here’s why your deep skepticism about these developments should have been activated, too.

First, let’s reveal right off the bat my professional legal qualifications to comment on these matters: None. I don’t even play a lawyer on TV. But I’ve been around politics and policy long enough, and know enough history, to recognize when a public official is acting constructively and out of principle, or simply grandstanding.

One of the biggest tests is the decision to work through proper channels within the system or to go public quickly. Yates clearly flunked it. That is, there’s no evidence that in her role as one of the U.S. government’s chief sources of legal advice, she made any effort to inform the president of her opinion about the EO’s conformity with American law. Instead, she simply directed Justice Department personnel not to “present arguments in defense of the order.”

Also fishy about Yates’ memo. Although supposedly addressed to an audience of practicing lawyers, it contained no specific legal argumentation. It made no references to any statutes or court decisions. It didn’t even mention the Constitution. Yates simply asserted that she is “not convinced that the Executive Order is lawful.” Indeed, she weirdly qualified her position with the phrase “At present.” Was she inviting challenges? Heaven only knows. Was she revealing that she was going to throw a big monkey wrench into an already tumultuous situation even though she hadn’t definitively made up her mind? So it seems. Did she describe any process she might use to evaluate the measure further? Did she mention any deadline she had created for a final decision – something essential for her Executive Branch colleagues charged with administering the EO? Not at all.

Yates’ inclusion in her memo of numerous arguments outside the legal sphere also indicates she wasn’t terribly confident in its purely legal basis. Indeed, she seemed to confirm that her agency’s Office of Legal Counsel affirmed that the EO is “lawful on its face and properly drafted.” But rather than simply offer her own legal counter-arguments, she proceeded to cite as evidence on her behalf:

>”statements made by an administration or its surrogates [i.e., individuals outside the administration with no official status] close in time to the issuance of an Executive Order that may bear on the order’s purpose”;

>”whether any policy choice embodied in an Executive Order is wise or just”; and 

>the Justice Department’s “solemn obligation to always seek justice and to stand for what is right.”

More pertinent to the (dispositive) issue of legality (however broad or narrow) was Yates’ concern about Justice determining that its position is “informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts.” It’s true that an exclusively textual analysis often does not suffice in the legal world, and that terms in statutes are frequently surrounded by or generate “umbrellas” that can be far-reaching. But this was the place for Yates to serve up some specifics behind her doubts. Her only apparent effort along these lines was her observation that the EO “has been challenged in a number of jurisdictions.”

This threadbare legal reasoning, combined with the strong emphasis given to factors that concern philosophy and policy, not law, inevitably create the impression that the former Acting Attorney General was protesting too much.  In fact, it looks like little more than the use of that common rhetorical tack of throwing as much mud against the wall in hopes that some of it sticks – and thus playing to a crowd far beyond her professional subordinates.

Finally, on this score, although I lack a legal education, someone who does – in spades – has just called Yates’ reasoning “extraordinarily weak.” Author Jack Goldsmith – a Harvard Law School professor who has also served as an Assistant Attorney General – does agree that Yates was within her authority in determining “which presidential orders the Department will defend in court.” He also endorses her view of the “narrowly” technical purview of her Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

But he calls Yates’ justification for her decision a “sharp” departure “from the usual criteria that an Attorney General would apply in deciding whether to defend an EO in court. As such, the letter seems like an act of insubordination that invites the President to fire her.”

Of course, Goldsmith’s views aren’t dispositive, either. But in combination with the the rhetorical stunts I’ve described and the paucity of legal reasoning and evidence Yates offered, it places a heavy burden of proof on those who insist that her behavior was responsible.

In fact, as Goldsmith contends, the proper course of action for Yates was resigning, and here we arrive at one of the two crucial differences between this episode and that Watergate-era “Saturday Night Massacre.”

During that October, 1973 episode, President Richard M. Nixon, under investigation by Congress and his own Justice Department for abuses of power, fired Archibald Cox, a Harvard Law School professor who had been appointed as the Department’s Watergate Special Prosecutor. After refusing Mr. Nixon’s order to dismiss Cox themselves, Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson (who chose Cox) and then his Deputy, William D. Ruckelshaus, resigned from their positions. Crucially, they did not insist upon their right or duty to remain on the job in defiance of a presidential directive.  

Another important difference, although its relative importance is debatable: Richardson (and possibly by extension, Ruckelshaus) arguably had a stronger basis for staying on. For Richardson’s confirmation as Attorney General by the Senate depended largely on a commitment he made (and cited in his resignation letter) to “assure the independence of the Special Prosecutor.” The position’s creation – which was agreed to by the former president – was considered necessary by the Senate (and much of he rest of the country) to prevent a flagrant conflict of interest. The aim was making sure that Justice officials beholden bureaucratically and politically to a sitting president would not be in charge of major Executive Branch legal probes and actions against him.

Interestingly, however, Richardson did not claim in his resignation letter that the Nixon decision violated legally binding commitments made to the Senate, much less any presidential Constitutional obligations to the Senate given that body’s Constitutional role in confirming Executive Branch appointees.

Instead, Richardson wrote to the president, “While I fully respect the reasons that have led you to conclude that the special prosecutor must be discharged, I trust that you understand that I could not in the light of these firm and repeated commitments carry out your direction that this be done.” That is to say, Richardson portrayed his decision as a matter of personal honor.

Yates and others are fully entitled to dissent from President Trump’s Executive Orders and to challenge them through the court system on legal and/or Constitutional grounds. What Yates was not entitled to do was to portray her stated rationale not to defend the orders while serving as Attorney General as consistent with that office’s authority, rather than the product of her own particular personal views. For these are utterly irrelevant from a legal and Constitutional standpoint. And anyone who sees her as another Elliot Richardson and her firing as another Saturday Night Massacre doesn’t know much about either.

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