On "All Things Considered," Yates speaks with NPR's Ari Shapiro about President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the independence of the Department of Justice.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST: The Trump administration has had a lot of high-level turnover in six months and in just the last week and a half. The president's new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, is out. He lasted 10 days. During that time, the chief of staff and press secretary left. Scaramucci's departure today comes as the new chief of staff, John Kelly, had his first day on the job. We'll have much more about this elsewhere in the program.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST: Now we're going to talk with one of the first people President Trump fired. Sally Yates spent nearly 30 years at the Department of Justice. She was acting attorney general when she refused to enforce the administration's travel ban, and Trump dismissed her. Since then, Yates has been speaking out more about what she sees as a disturbing pattern of political interference at the Department of Justice.
Welcome to the program.
SALLY YATES: Well, thank you for having me.
SHAPIRO: In the last week, the president has criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions, saying it is unfair that Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation and more. Many presidents have expressed frustration or even disagreement with things the Justice Department has done. In your opinion, what makes this criticism different?
YATES: Well, primarily what makes this different is that what the president is complaining about is that it's unfair that he doesn't have an individual in place to protect him or those close to him from the Russia investigation. That is very, very different from having just, for example, a policy disagreement with the attorney general or others in the Department of Justice and really invades that area that is supposed to be sacrosanct for DOJ and that being that criminal investigations and prosecutions - those decisions are made just by consideration of the law and the facts and nothing else.
SHAPIRO: Now, the former FBI Director Robert Mueller is leading an independent investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election. President Trump has suggested, including in an interview with The New York Times, that he might consider firing Mueller if the investigation goes certain directions - for example, if it reaches into Trump Corporation finances. What do you think the consequences of that would be?
YATES: I think that would really be catastrophic. And I think that you're hearing that both from Democrats and Republicans. The White House is not supposed to have any involvement in any investigation or case at all and certainly no involvement in an investigation that involves the White House itself or the president's campaign itself. And so then to take a step to fire special counsel Mueller would be turning the rule of law on its head and would be violating that basic core principle that no one is above the law.
SHAPIRO: How much confidence do you have in the ability of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to maintain the firewall that you're describing between politics and law enforcement?
YATES: Well, you know, this is a time-honored firewall. This is not a partisan issue here. I believe that Attorney General Sessions respects the role of the Department of Justice, and it's really going to be up to him to protect the institution of the Department of Justice.
SHAPIRO: So far, do you think he's done a good job of that?
YATES: Well, he recognized that he needed to recuse from the Russia investigation. Many folks have described that as a no-brainer of a decision despite the fact that the president is quite angry about it. And so certainly that is a good indication that he takes that responsibility seriously.
SHAPIRO: You wrote a New York Times op-ed that concludes, we must do more than rubberneck as we drive past this car crash; we all have a responsibility to protect our Justice Department's ability to do its job free from interference; the very foundation of our justice system, the rule of law, depends on it. But you don't actually explain how to protect the Justice Department from interference. What can be done?
YATES: Well, there's only so much you can say in 750 words.
YATES: But you know, really one of the things that I was concerned about when I wrote the op-ed was that, you know - I understand why, you know, many across the country had an almost ghoulish fascination in what was going on with the president essentially beating up his attorney general publicly. But beneath that, the really troubling thing to me was why he was beating him up, and that is that he wanted him to resign, to be able to put someone else in to run the Russia investigation. And so while I understand why there would be a lot of discussion about the fact that Attorney General Sessions had been so loyal to the president, it really missed the bigger point to me, and that is the critical fact that the Department of Justice must absolutely be independent.
And so the first thing I think that we can all do is to ensure that when we talk about this issue, we don't lose sight of the genesis of the president wanting to change out his attorney general, what it is he's trying to accomplish here and then to make sure that our elected officials know that that's absolutely unacceptable. I believe that our public officials will respond if they know how important this is to the public.
SHAPIRO: You spent a large part of your professional career at the Justice Department - 27 years. And for a few months after you left, you didn't speak publicly about what's happening there. What are you feeling right now?
YATES: Well, you know, a variety of feelings, I suppose. I'm not sure. I feel like I'm lying down on a couch here in front of millions of listeners as I tell you how I'm feeling right now, but...
YATES: You know, as a citizen, obviously I'm very troubled and anxious about what's going on. Certainly as someone who's, as you said, a nearly 30-year veteran of the department and someone who loves the Department of Justice - and I'm still very committed to the mission of that department - I am anxious for the department as well and what all of this will mean for DOJ even after a Trump presidency is over. You know, I think we have to be careful that we don't so change the norms of how DOJ operates, of how the rule of law operates that it is forever changed even after this presidency is over.
SHAPIRO: Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, thanks very much.
YATES: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.