White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday dismissed Sally Yates’s testimony critical of the Trump administration by painting her as essentially a double agent.
Spicer said President Trump’s former acting attorney general was a “political opponent,” and he repeatedly suggested her political views were pertinent. He said she was “appointed by the Obama administration and a strong supporter of Clinton.”
It all seems to confirm what I hypothesized on Monday: That the White House dismissed warnings about Michael Flynn from both President Obama and Yates, the former acting attorney general, because they were viewed as opponents with axes to grind. No matter that their warnings wound up being vindicated.
But Spicer’s contention that Yates was a “strong supporter” of Clinton is apparently based on nothing more than his own logical deductions and rumors. Yates was appointed as the Justice Department’s second-in-command by a Democratic president, but she was a senior Justice Department official during the 2016 campaign. Such officials — especially those in law enforcement — make a habit of staying out of politics for fear of their decisions appearing political and biased.
Yates doesn’t appear to have made any public statements of support for Clinton during the 2016 campaign.
Asked to substantiate his comments at Tuesday’s briefing, Spicer seemed to begin citing comments Yates had made. But then he shifted course and acknowledged that his statement was based on rumors.
Asked why he called Sally Yates a “strong supporter of Hillary Clinton,” Sean Spicer says it was “widely rumored” https://t.co/Ho4ZeBkdYa
— Will Wrobel (@willwphoto) May 9, 2017
“I think she's made some — was widely rumored to play a role in the Justice Department if Hillary Clinton won,” Spicer said.
So Spicer is basing this not even on rumors that Yates had secretly supported Clinton, but merely that she stood to benefit from a Clinton win.
That’s not the same thing. By this logic, Mitt Romney was a strong supporter of President Trump in the 2016 campaign, since he was later a potential pick for secretary of state. The same goes for Jon Huntsman, Trump’s pick to be ambassador to Russia who urged Trump to drop out of the campaign with a month to go.
Yates’s political leanings would seem to be obvious, given the party whose president she served under, her decision not to enforce Trump’s travel ban (which got her fired), and her name being floated as a possible Democratic candidate for office in Georgia in 2018. Her husband, Comer Yates, is a former Democratic candidate for Congress and donor.
But none of those things make her a 2016 Clinton supporter — much less a “strong” one. And in fact, she climbed the ladder in the Justice Department through both Republican and Democratic administrations, being first assistant U.S. attorney and then acting U.S. attorney under George W. Bush in the early 2000s. And when the Trump administration needed an acting attorney general to bridge the gap before then-Sen. Jeff Sessions could be approved, they chose this apparent political hack to do it.
It’s clear what the Trump administration is doing here. Trump seemed to suggest Yates was a Democratic activist in a tweet before her testimony Monday morning. They want to make Yates look like someone who is trying to make them look bad because she’s such a liberal.
Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Counsel.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 8, 2017
And there’s a case to be made that her actions were too political. As I’ve written before, Yates’s case for not enforcing Trump’s travel ban rubbed some legal experts the wrong way. Yates, after all, didn’t say the travel ban wasn’t lawful — the usual standard for declining to enforce your orders — but rather merely that she wasn’t convinced that it was.
But it’s one thing to make that case; it’s another to make claims about Yates that aren’t backed up by the public record and are based on rumors. It’s entirely possible Yates would have served a significant role in a Clinton administration and wanted that outcome, but that doesn’t make her a “strong supporter of Clinton.”
And it sure doesn’t mean her advice about Flynn was wrong.