Acting attorney general Sally Yates was fired by Trump for "betraying" the administration.

I tried searching a bit, but I wasn't able to find a clear answer so I will ask here.

Did Sally Yates act within her authority as acting attorney general? Does someone in that position have the authority to defy executive orders?

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    What exactly do you mean by "right"? She's an employee. She has the right to refuse the orders - it's not the military. The manager has the right to fire an employee for not following the orders. Are you asking if not following the orders is a legally firable offense in that position?
    – user4012
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 4:50
  • 10
    That's one of the aspects of her job...to decide what to prosecute (and enforce). As a legal expert, she deemed the order unconstitutional (not officially, but in her legal opinion), so felt it inappropriate to enforce it. While the admin is painting it as betrayal, that's simply putting some spin on things. Ideally, the AG has quite a bit of autonomy.
    – user1530
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 6:33
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    'Betrayal' is a very strong word; and disquieting in this context. Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 13:34
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    @blip Betrayal might be a strong spin word, but its very clearly dereliction of duty. The professional thing to do here is resign in protest, not make a big show of your political (lets be real, this was politics, not law) opinions. Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 14:02
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    @davidgrinberg between the AGs office and the White House I have to assume the AGs was more of a legal stance than pure politics.
    – user1530
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 17:00

3 Answers 3


Yates was the acting chief executive of a department of the US government. That gives her broad discretion in how to run her department. It is within her authority to direct her department in pretty much any way she sees fit. That includes saying that the President's position is legally untenable and that the department would not defend it.

In the same regard, President Trump is the head of the US government, and Yates reported to Trump. And in Trump's capacity as the head, he is able to fire underlings for a broad variety of reasons. This time the reason was clear and justified.

Now that's all technicalities really. In reality Yates was protesting the orders knowing full well it would get her fired. So while technically speaking no officer of the government overstepped their bounds here, the reality is that Yates was essentially quitting in protest.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – yannis
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 18:08
  • I see, that's interesting. So would it be safe to say that Yates and Trump both did what they had to do without exceeding the scope of their authorities? Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 23:47
  • @HalfwayDillitante yeah, I think that's fair. Yates on moral ground, and Trump on obvious management ground. Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 0:07
  • @DavidGrinberg Moral ground? I'm curious, is it a matter of morals if one refuses to support a law which is in one's legal opinion? I would assume that moral ground would be more about believing that a law is immoral even though its legality is not in question. Based on reports, I was under the impression that Yates' interpretation of the law was that she could not enforce the EO without violating preexisting laws, therefore she was legally bound not to enforce the EO. Did I get that wrong? Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 1:55
  • @HalfwayDillitante The gray area you are entering into here is way outside the scope of the comments section. Feel free to open a chat if you wish to discuss. Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 2:01

The justice department has the DUTY to follow the law therefore it would be their duty to not follow any illegal orders.

During her congressional confirmation hearings, Yates was repeatedly asked by Republicans if she will be an AG who will be independent from the president (Obama at the time) and will uphold the law, even if it goes against his wishes and she said yes.

We can argue 'till the end of the world if the EO was legal or not, or if she chose to disobey it for political reasons or whatever, but I think one thing is clear - her top responsibility is to the law, not the president and as such she certainly had the authority to disobey an order that she thinks is illegal.

Interesting reading on the subject: http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1074&context=lcp

  • 1
    One more time, her own DOJ Legal Counsel found the EO lawful. Her duty then if she's conflicted by her own Department and President is to resign.
    – user9790
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 15:37
  • @KDog, re "...conflicted by her own department...": the possessive "own" seems tendentious. Within any conflicted department, the loyalties and duties of ownership and membership are much of what's in dispute. Perhaps these conflicts are purely over loyalty to power, and superficially incorrect orders and counsel might be the mere means of testing and exercising that power.
    – agc
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 16:59
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    @agc she's statutorily required to so defend. When she didn't, she revealed herself to be a hack of the first order
    – user9790
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 17:03
  • @KDog I have read that the OLC reviewed the order, but I haven't seen anything that describes their findings. (For example, AFAIK it's possible that they had criticisms or reservations, but that the president decided to sign the order anyway without addressing them.) Do you actually know of any news or other sources reporting that they explicitly found the order to be lawful?
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 17:09
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    The linked article indeed makes for interesting reading: footnote 10, on page 4 has "Charles Fried is probably the most dramatic example of a Solicitor General who thought that that office [the Attorney General] had become beholden to pleasing the Justices rather than arguing for the President’s agenda. Indeed, the Reagan Justice Department generally was known to be an exponent of this view, particularly William Bradford Reynolds. That said, even Fried understood that the law governed him in ways that forced him to observe it contrary to political forces within the Administration." Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 17:21

The answer, like any thing in life, is complicated and subjective.

The AG is really the president's counsel. As such, it has two jobs.

  1. Providing legal advice to the president. Yates voiced here opinion on the matter - maybe not so artfully but she provided her perspective on the executive order. No one can question her integrity. So she is executing her office dutifully in that regard.

  2. As a lawyer, her other job is to argue on behalf of her clients, however she thought of her clients or his actions. Just like a defense lawyer for a killer. The fact that you disagree with your clients actions is secondary, as a lawyer. She failed utterly to see that she is obligated to defend the president and the law, to make sure that they get a fair hearing in the court. A lawyer who refuse to defend her clients to the best of her capabilities should be disbarred.

    If she disagrees with the president, she should resign her post.

Plus, this "you don't have to defend a law if you don't like it" has got to stop. That kind of actions took legislation away from the Congress and gave it to the executive branch. Any lawyer who believes that should be throw out.

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    She is 'obligated to defend the president and the law' for sure; these are not always the same thing, and in this case, and in her official capacity she found that it wasn't. Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 12:28
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    Do you have a source that defines her job/dual roles this way?
    – rougon
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 13:13
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    The AG is not the president's counsel. The AG is the chief law enforcement officer of the US with a duty to uphold the constitution. The AG could recommend a special prosecutor to investigate suspected misdeeds of the President, for example, which would require the President to hire legal counsel.
    – jalynn2
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 15:21
  • @jalynn2 As I understand it, the AG is the lawyer for the entire executive branch, though the role of legal advisor to the president is delegated to the office of legal counsel, which is not independent; it reports to the AG.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 17:12

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