Sally Yates, at the Justice Department, in 2015 in Washington. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Former acting attorney general Sally Yates worries about “normalization” of behaviors that threaten democratic norms and the rule of law. Appearing with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) at the Center for American Progress policy conference, she spoke forcefully about a critical, time-honored tradition: the “wall between the White House and Department of Justice when it comes to investigations and prosecutions.” She drilled down on President Trump’s actions, including the almost-daily hectoring on Twitter to get the Justice Department to open up investigations against political opponents. Trump’s effort to “tear down legitimacy of the Justice Department” so that people lose confidence in our legal system is no small matter.

In a progressive setting where one potential presidential candidate after another test-runs his or her message, Yates — who has rejected the suggestion to run for political office — remains one of the most (if not the most) impressive speakers. Her singular focus on preservation of democracy, matched with her considerable expertise and a low-boiling, righteous anger, gives her a stature most politicians lack. Perhaps her refusal to consider political office will fade.

Klobuchar, appearing confident and cheery in her delivery, echoed the concern about the constant onslaught against not only lower Justice Department officials but also against the special counsel and deputy attorney general. She also stressed the need for rejecting totally unqualified judicial nominees. She noted that the “blue slip” system, whereby senators from the nominee’s state can block a nominee, is no longer in place for circuit court appointments (although for now it holds on district court and U.S. attorney nominations). She ruefully pointed out that Republicans wouldn’t honor the objection from Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) to fill a seat — kept open for years via blue slip by her Republican colleague, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). It is a small but telling example of the way in which the ground is shifting.

Yates noted that, for now, the “judiciary has done its job,” but worried that the “the president continues to attack legitimacy of courts and individual judges,” which she says will have “a corrosive effect.” Rebutting the tribal perspective of the president who thinks Democratic prosecutors act out of partisan loyalty (and conveniently ignore that the special counsel is a Republican), Yates she shared that, at the U.S. attorney’s office in Atlanta where she worked before coming to Main Justice, she didn’t know the political affiliation of the people working there. “And that’s the way it should be,” she said. “From the first day — before the first day — at the Justice Department it is hammered into you that your sole responsibility is to seek justice. It is deeply ingrained in the Department of Justice; that is the ethos.” She says she remains “optimistic” about the long-term health of her former department.

Lieu shared that the situation in the House “is worse than I expected.” “Once they retire they show some courage,” he said. He focuses on corruption, including Trump’s money-making off the properties he visits, and the antics of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. He stressed that we need to “close the nepotism loophole,” citing the gross unacceptability of having Jared Kushner still in the White House after serial corrections to his intelligence clearance application.

Klobuchar reeled off a list of actions Congress could take — including the bill seeking protection for the independent counsel, funding efforts to boost election infrastructure, opposing gerrymandering and voter suppression, and her Honest Ads Act, co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), which would apply the same disclosures to online political ads that apply to TV ads.

Yates’s sense of mission and optimism give one hope, but she makes a singular point: Aside from any specific legislation, the hardest and most essential effort remains the ongoing refusal to accept this president’s hostility to the rule of law. That’s the work not of one party or of one department, but of the entire country.