Jurisprudence

Slayer of Ted Cruz, Defender of Justice

On Monday, Sally Yates walked out of an Aaron Sorkin script and into liberals’ hearts.

Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.
Sally Yates is sworn in prior to testifying before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on Monday about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Jim Bourg/Reuters

Shortly before midnight on Monday, I texted a friend in Los Angeles. “Hey, do most people know who Sally Yates is?” I asked him.

He responded, “We do now bish.”

It had been a little less than six hours since Yates finished testifying before a Senate subcommittee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. Yates, a top Obama appointee in the Justice Department who became acting attorney general under the Trump administration, was fired on Jan. 30 after directing government lawyers not to defend Trump’s travel ban in court. On Monday, she persuasively defended that decision against Republican senators who accused her of defying the president on the travel ban just because she disagreed with it as a matter of public policy.

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Before this week, Yates had been celebrated for having the audacity to take a stand against the Trump administration. Now, in the aftermath of her testimony, she’s become a different kind of hero, one who fulfilled the twin liberal fantasies of fighting back against injustice and intolerance and making Sen. Ted Cruz look like a blithering fool.

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Though Yates hadn’t been brought before the Russia subcommittee to talk about the travel ban, she nevertheless summoned the patience to explain—first to Sen. John Cornyn, then to Cruz—that her opposition to defending the ban had been about law rather than policy. She testified that she’d analyzed Trump’s executive order, and considered the statements Trump and his team had made about it in public. Her conclusion was unambiguous, she said: The order was unconstitutional because its goal, as revealed by the Trump campaign’s promise to bring about “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” was to discriminate against people based on religion. Yates explained that she couldn’t send her lawyers out to argue otherwise because she knew it wouldn’t be the truth.

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The most memorable moment of Monday’s hearing came when Cruz tried to lecture Yates on the federal statute that in his view, gave Trump the authority to enact his travel ban. The exchange, which felt straight out of an Aaron Sorkin script, was borderline eerie in the level of liberal wish fulfillment it delivered. In one corner, you had the least-liked guy in Washington speaking with undisguised smugness about a law he implied Yates wasn’t familiar with. (“It certainly is a relevant and not a terribly obscure statute,” he said.) In the other corner, you had an even-keeled, confident former prosecutor who surprised Cruz by knowing the law better than he did and explained with piercing lucidity why she believed the order was unconstitutional. Behold:

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Progressives reacted to Yates’ handling of Cruz with unbridled giddiness. The hero had punched out the villain and made him crumple to the ground. True expertise had won out over bluster. A cool woman had waited calmly for a smarmy man to finish condescending to her before dismantling his presumption of superiority.

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Baseball writer Molly Knight responded with characteristic euphoria: “In my darkest hours I will think of Sally Yates destroying Ted Cruz on national television, and it will sustain me,” she wrote in a widely circulated tweet. In an inspired comparison, blogger Yashar Ali posted the scene from My Cousin Vinny in which Marisa Tomei explains the difference between a 1964 Buick Skylark and a 1963 Pontiac Tempest.

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Though the Cruz exchange was the hearing’s most viral moment—in various blog posts, Yates was described as having humiliated him, mopped the floor with him, and chewed him up and spit him out—the whole hearing left liberals feeling uncommonly charged up:

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Even the legal world’s most prominent critic of Yates’ move against Trump’s travel ban, former Office of Legal Counsel head Jack Goldsmith, seemed to approve of her testimony. In a post for Lawfare published Monday night, Goldsmith wrote that the legal arguments Yates made at the hearing for defying Trump’s executive order were different and “more defensible” than the ones she’d laid out in her Jan. 30 directive. Back then, Goldsmith had taken Yates to task for saying only she was “[not] convinced” the order was lawful—as opposed to saying she was convinced it was unlawful—writing that he didn’t think that uncertainty was a legitimate basis for refusing to defend it. On Monday, he noted, Yates was more forceful in her analysis, telling the senators in no uncertain terms she believed the order was unconstitutional. Goldsmith speculated in ways unflattering to Yates as to why she didn’t strike that note originally—“perhaps … she did not express herself well because she wrote the letter under time pressure,” he wrote—but ultimately seemed more convinced than before that her legal reasoning had been sound.

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If Goldsmith was impressed with Yates’ lack of equivocation, the newest members of her fan club were likely reacting to something else: her precision. For nearly three hours, she maintained impeccable control over every word that came out of her mouth. When she started a sentence, you knew she had an ending already planned. When she was asked a question, you could tell she was actually listening and would respond to all of its particularities rather than reciting some stock answer she had brought to the hearing in her back pocket.

Yates was specific, too. At one point, she realized she’d made a mistake earlier in her testimony when she’d stated that she and White House Counsel Don McGahn had “two in-person meetings and one phone call” about retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn in the days before her dismissal from the Justice Department. After being asked to go back over that timeline, Yates caught her error and corrected herself. There had actually been two phone calls, not one: She’d forgotten that in addition to the substantive phone conversation between herself and McGahn on Jan. 30, McGahn had also called her on Jan. 27 to set up their second meeting.

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“Sorry about that,” Yates said, signaling just how seriously she takes detail and accuracy even when making a minor procedural point.

This was the opposite of the posture Americans have gotten used to since the dawn of the new administration. Unlike Yates, President Trump and his circle prefer vagueness because it allows them to evade the truth more easily and to avoid getting caught not knowing things. There is a slackness to much of what Trump says—a simultaneously strained and effortless quality to the haze of incomplete thoughts, generalizations, and meaningless phrases that dribble out of him wherever he goes. When Trump does try to get specific, he tends to get things wrong. On the same day Yates sat before the Senate subcommittee and performed the legal equivalent of surgery, the president misspelled “White House Counsel” on Twitter.

Yates was already an avatar for the anti-Trump resistance before her performance Monday. Now it’s official: She is the Democratic Party’s new star. In the months ahead, she should expect to hear a lot of talk about what office she’ll run for and when. Liberals now know who Sally Yates is, and they really, really like what they see.

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