Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates believes deeply in public service, having spent 20 years in the Department of Justice. “I fell in love with the mission,” she says. “I’m committed to that and am still committed to that.”
But would she ever run for office? Unlikely. “Someday I might have the opportunity for some kind of public service again,” but running for office is not something she has ever had a desire to do.
Yates spoke from the stage of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, addressing the 10 days she spent as acting attorney general in January—a tenure that ended when she was dismissed by President Trump after instructing the Justice Department not to enforce the president’s ban on travelers from several majority Muslim countries.
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Those 10 days were like no other any acting attorney general has ever experienced. During a normal transition of power in Washington, nothing happens during the holdover period, Yates explains. Everything remains the status quo, to the point where Yates’s chief of staff told her there would be time for lots of long boozy lunches.
But this is no normal time in Washington. Instead of those boozy lunches, Yates spent that week-and-a-half in a whirlwind. “We packed a lot into those 10 days,” she says. “In dog years I think it was a lot longer than 10 days.”
Yates had previously been the deputy attorney general, and there’s a longstanding tradition that the deputy serves as the acting attorney general during the transition. “It’s important in all of our agencies to have a smooth transition. Nowhere is that more important than the Department of Justice,” she says, pointing to its oversight of national security. “I was happy to serve,” she says.
One of her first jobs was to notify the White House that Michael Flynn, then the President’s national security advisor, could be compromised because of his contact with the Russians, much of which he had failed to disclose. “There’s no playbook for this,” she says. “The good news is this doesn’t happen very often. There’s not really a script for how you handle it.”
The same day she had been at the White House discussing Flynn, she was on her way to the airport when her deputy called to inform her of President Trump’s travel ban directed primarily at six Muslim-majority countries. Normally, the attorney general would have been given the chance to provide input, since the Department of Justice would have to defend the order, but this was the first she was hearing of it.
Yates called everyone in to talk through how the the department would defend the executive order. She was “not convinced at the end of the discussion that it was in fact lawful or constitutional” and therefore would not defend it. (Some federal courts later ruled the ban to be unconstitutional; that case is still being litigated, and the White House has since issued orders that supersede it.)
So why not step down? “That was the quandary, and I’m sure it’s not unlike high-stakes decisions you have all made in your careers,” Yates told the audience of female business leaders. “You don’t do it just in those hours or couple of days you have.” Instead she drew from her experiences and judgments from the prior two decades.
Yates says stepping down would have protected her personal integrity but not the integrity of the Department of Justice. “I felt like that would have been the easy way out.” She thought back to her confirmation hearing when she was asked if she would say no if the President asked her to do something unlawful: “They didn’t ask me if I would resign. I felt like I needed to do my job, and doing my job meant saying no.”