Sally Yates: Profile in Partisanship
When Acting Attorney General Sally Yates conspired to get herself fired by President Trump for refusing to implement White House revisions to the country’s immigration and refugee policy, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called it a “a brave act…and profile in courage.”
On the House side of the Capitol, Rep. John Conyers, the longest-serving member of Congress, criticized Trump for dismissing Yates—though that was her aim—by saying, “If dedicated government officials deem his directives to be unlawful and unconstitutional, he will simply fire them as if government is a reality show.”
The New York Times, a news organization that hasn’t exactly greeted the Trump administration with equanimity, compared the episode to the infamous Saturday Night Massacre in which Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned on October 20, 1973 rather than carry out President Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
This analogy is more than superficial. It’s silly. Nixon didn’t fire, as Trump did, some lame duck political holdover hired by a predecessor of the opposing political party. Nixon’s actions involved two highly regarded officials from his own political party, men he’d personally appointed. They quit because he wanted them to sack an independent counsel investigating the possibility of criminality on the part of Nixon and his own aides.
“There’s a big difference, because the Saturday Night Massacre was really about firing the attorney general when Nixon was the target of an investigation and was actively obstructing justice,” famed Washington Post Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein said in a CNN interview. “I think the president is within his rights here to fire the attorney general, that he has that ability.”
Chuck Schumer’s “profile in courage” comparison is even goofier. The phrase comes to us from John F. Kennedy, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book of that title in 1956 while he was a freshman senator. In the telling of Theodore C. Sorensen, who helped write and research “Profiles in Courage,” the idea came to JFK when he was convalescing from a spinal operation. Kennedy’s original inspiration was the dilemma of conscience experienced by John Quincy Adams when he was a Massachusetts senator.
Adams came to the Senate as a Federalist in 1803, but in his first significant vote he supported Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. Four years later, the administration sought congressional support for a trade embargo against Great Britain—Jefferson’s version of Trump’s ill-conceived 20 percent tariff on imports from Mexico. This time, not only was Adams’ political party opposed, so was all of New England, where it was believed the embargo would wreak havoc on the economy. Despite lobbying, threats and vilification, Adams followed his conscience. This vote in support of Jefferson cost him his Senate seat and, as far as anyone knew at the time, his political career. That was the theme of Kennedy’s book, and several of the seven other senators he wrote about did forfeit their professional futures.
“Profiles in Courage” holds up well today. JFK acknowledges the desire to “go along” and to be liked. Politicians are “social animals,” he writes. Kennedy outlines the pressures confronting public servants: one-issue pressure groups, passionate constituents, the desire to stay in office, the exigencies of financing campaigns. The senators he admired most were those who bucked their own party for what they saw as the long-term good of the United States.
That kind of political independence is so rare in Washington today that it’s little wonder Chuck Schumer and others would mistake Sally Yates’ actions for courage. It’s doubtful Jack Kennedy would have thought of her that way. She was a government aide refusing to carry out the directive of a president; Kennedy was writing about elected officials who had something to lose, and were willing to pay a steep price for doing what they thought was right.
So what is courage, really? Physical courage is the most obvious, which Kennedy possessed. Politicians without war records on their résumés can be touchy about this subject. For a while during President Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, Democratic Party surrogates and Clinton rally warm-up speakers were instructed to mention Bill Clinton’s “courage” in battling the tobacco companies. Clinton, who avoided service in Vietnam, had already bested one World War II hero (George H.W. Bush) and was about to defeat another (Bob Dole) to stay in office, but something must have shown up in the campaign’s focus groups. But it got to be a little much hearing how “brave” Clinton was to take on an industry that was polling about as well as the Iranian ayatollahs—especially because Dole fought with the famed U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division in World War II, with the medals and disabilities to prove it.
John Kennedy, despite his heroism in the Pacific, had a broad definition of bravery and quoted Ernest Hemingway’s description of it--“grace under pressure”—in the preface to “Profiles in Courage” to illustrate the point. Clinton would later display that trait during the crucible of impeachment. Still, though, he was fighting to stay in office, not risking his career on principle. Who does that anymore? How many Democratic Party members of Congress, for instance, put their own re-election at risk to support gay marriage—and paid with their seats? The answer is none, although a handful of Republican state legislators in Vermont did.
There’s no reason to believe Sally Yates is anything other than a talented lawyer and principled person. But when she issued a statement she knew would be heralded by all her friends and most of her acquaintances while setting herself up for a seven-figure salary in private practice -- risking a job she was going to lose in a week or two anyway -- well, that’s pretty much the opposite of courage.
And no, the inevitable opprobrium from Donald Trump doesn’t count. He lashes out at everyone who ever disagrees with him. As for that exchange between Yates and Sen. Jeff Sessions that her liberal supporters find so richly ironic, it’s not instructive at all. Sessions didn’t ask Yates if she’d stand up to a Republican she despises. He asked her if she’d stand up to President Obama. There’s no evidence she ever did. Probably she never had to, or even thought she should. It’s likely she agreed with everything Barack Obama did. But the real lesson of the Session-Yates exchange is that she shouldn’t still be in that job at the Department of Justice. Jeff Sessions should be, and Chuck Schumer is the reason he’s not.
Senate Democrats are slow-walking President Trump’s Cabinet appointments, which is why Democrats are still running the Justice Department. Is that an example Democrats will want Republicans to follow in four years if Trump loses to their candidate? As for John Conyers’s standard, think about his logic for a moment: An acting Cabinet secretary from a previous administration should be able to tell a sitting president that she doesn’t like his policies and won’t implement them—and still keep her job. That’s not a prescription for good governance. It’s a prescription for anarchy.
Correction: Chuck Schumer's title was misstated in an earlier version of this article.