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Attorney General Nominee Jeff Sessions Once Grilled Sally Yates About Standing Up to the President

Jan 31, 2017

When Sally Yates was confirmed as deputy U.S. attorney general nearly two years ago, she assured Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions that she would be willing to stand up to the President if he took "unlawful" action.

Yates, who had just recently taken over as acting attorney general, was fired Monday night by President Donald Trump after she refused to defend his order on immigration, explaining that she was not "convinced that the executive order is lawful." Trump admonished Yates, replaced her with a new acting attorney general and is now eagerly awaiting the confirmation of his Attorney General nominee, who happens to be Sessions.

During Yates' confirmation hearing on March 24, 2105, Sessions grilled her on whether she would be willing to say no to the President (who at the time was Barack Obama) — "no matter how headstrong they might be."

"If the views a President wants to execute are unlawful, should the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General say no?" Sessions asked.

"Senator, I believe that the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution and to give their independent legal advice to the President," Yates said.

In the wake of the Justice Department shakeup Monday, that clip from the hearing has gone viral:

Here's a transcript of their exchange:

Sessions: Well, you have to watch out because people will be asking you to do things, you just need to say no about. Do you think the Attorney General has a responsibility to say no to the President if he asks for something that's improper? A lot of people have defended the Lynch nomination, for example, by saying, ‘Well, he appoints somebody who's going to execute his views. What's wrong with that?’ But if the views a President wants to execute are unlawful, should the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General say no?

Yates: Senator, I believe that the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution and to give their independent legal advice to the President.

Sessions: Does the Office of Legal Counsel — which makes many of these opinions that impact policy — does it report through the deputy's office or directly to the Attorney General?

Yates: Well, when you look at the org chart, the Office of Legal Counsel reports to the deputy's office, but it's important that the Office of Legal Counsel also be independent because federal agencies across our government regularly come to the Office of Legal Counsel seeking advice and guidance about what is permissible and what isn't. And it's critically important that the OLC advice — the Office of Legal Counsel advice — be just that, advice, and that it not be advocacy.

Sessions: Well, that’s true. That’s true. And like any CEO, where the law firm —sometimes the lawyers have to tell the CEO, ‘Mr. CEO, you can’t do that, don’t do that. You’ll get us sued. It’s going to be in violation of the law. You’ll regret it. Please.’ No matter how headstrong they might be, do you feel like that’s the duty of the Attorney General’s office?

Yates: I do believe that that’s the duty of the attorney general’s office — to fairly and impartially evaluate the law and to provide the president and the administration with impartial legal advice.

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