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Opinion Sally Yates needs to be heard more often on Trump’s unfitness

Sally Yates, former acting U.S. attorney general. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
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Former acting attorney general Sally Yates, who first alerted the White House to ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn’s lies and who was fired for refusing to defend the first travel ban (which was subsequently struck down, and then dropped by the administration) gave a recent interview. Her remarks should be taken to heart:

It is a long-standing tradition—and an essential  one  to the rule of law—that the Department of Justice operates independently . . .  .  At the risk of sounding preachy, the DOJ has to be able to make its decisions about investigations and prosecutions free of any political influence whatsoever. In Democratic and Republican administrations alike, that has been a time-honored norm, a time-honored tradition that the White House has absolutely no involvement in that.

She then explained what this meant in practice:

That means that, from my perspective, the president shouldn’t be trying to shame the attorney general for recusing from the investigation that it was frankly a no-brainer, I think, to recuse from. That [the president] shouldn’t be trying to goad [the attorney general] into re-initiating an investigation of a political rival  or calling him up  and trying to get him to drop a criminal prosecution of Sheriff [Joe] Arpaio.

Trump’s incompetence will not save us from his malevolence

We are confident she would agree that this also means the president shouldn’t be hectoring the special counsel, shouldn’t be falsely hinting at the existence of White House tapes or threatening to bring spurious charges against the former FBI director, shouldn’t be drafting a defense for his son to give a false explanation for his attendance at a meeting with Russian officials and shouldn’t be blaming immigrants for increased crime in some cities. Nor do I think she would find it acceptable for the president to dub the media’s right to publish what it wants “disgusting.” She’d, I am sure, agree that falsely claiming millions of people illegally voted undermines our entire electoral system.

Yates: 'You don't want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians' (Video: Video: Reuters, Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Video: Reuters)

Yates did not bring up the propriety of impeachment, but that is the avenue the framers devised for a president who cannot uphold the rule of law and thereby abide by his oath. Most if not all the actions identified above are not facts one can legitimately dispute. We actually do not need the report from the special prosecutor to know President Trump publicly harangued Attorney General Jeff Sessions or pardoned Joe Arpaio or called for Hillary Clinton to be re-investigated. These were public actions and, as Yates, makes clear a violation of our democratic norms. “Democratic norms” is perhaps too polite a phrase. In reality what we are talking about is the set of responsibilities that flow from the president’s oath.

So to rephrase Yates’ admonition slightly, let’s say that under this president the DOJ cannot make its decisions about investigations and prosecutions free of any political influence whatsoever. In Democratic and Republican administrations alike, that has been an implicit part of the president’s oath. A president who cannot honor that aspect of his oath and who seeks to undermine the First Amendment and the sanctity of elections should be removed.

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Here is where I think Democrats have dropped the ball. They seem not to want to discuss impeachment at all, likely for fear of being painted as wide-eyed radicals bent on ousting the elected president. They’d prefer to push all of this off onto the special counsel.

However, there is plenty already known, facts beyond the confines of that investigation, that are powerful evidence the president is incapable of or unwilling to uphold his oath office. We don’t need to know if he also conspired with Russia or also instructed aides to create a phony cover story for his firing of James B. Comey. Sure, those matters might lead to additional articles of impeachment. But honestly, if Trump’s contempt for an independent Justice Department, attacks on the First Amendment and all the other public actions he has taken don’t in and of themselves satisfy an honorable member of the House that he should be impeached, then we might as well give up on the notion a president can ever be impeached for violating his oath of office except for violation of the criminal code.

Maybe Democrats in the House want to keep their gun powder dry for understandable political reasons, but that leaves a void where an informed public debate should be taking place. There is surely a need for a group of Democrats and Republicans, respected for their fidelity to the law, to begin to educate the public and make the case for impeachment on the evidence already before us. Yates would be an ideal figure to organize and lead such an effort.