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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES
Exclusive Interview with Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Aired 11p-12mn ET
Aired May 19, 2017 - 23:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[23:00:06] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to special edition of 360.
With the Russia investigation now in the hands of the special council, the White House under siege over the firing of FBI director James Comey and a President on his first trip outside the country, we are bringing you exclusively the story of one central figure in a drama surrounding all of it. She was director Comey's under the President fired her. She is former acting attorney general Sally Yates. She serves during pivotal moments for the justice department in the Trump administration and almost certainly the history books.
Sally Yates is the one who warned the White House that national security advisor Michael Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail. She is the one who refused to enforce President Trump's executive order banning travelers from seven primarily Muslim countries. Sally Yates was fired and now for the first time in her only television interview she's speaking out. The White House has gone after her questioning her actions, called her a partisan and opponent to the President. Now she says she wants to set the record straight. We begin the interview with her thoughts in the firing of director Comey.
COOPER: What did you think when you heard that director Comey had been fire fired?
SALLY YATES, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think this is a really troubling situation. I think there are serious questions about the timing and the motivation of the President's action.
COOPER: James Comey reported directly to you when you are deputy attorney general?
YATES: That's right.
COOPER: What was he like? Because as you, you know, the president has called him a showboat or grandstander.
YATES: Well, you know, Jim is obviously a very qualified and experienced guy. He had held my position before deputy attorney general. He had been a (INAUDIBLE) attorney in the southern district of New York and AUSA as well. So we had a common background. And I found him to be a straight shooter and candid.
COOPER: Did he strike you as showboat or grandstand?
YATES: No. I mean, I think, you know, Jim would speak his mind. Somewhat called that showboating, but Jim would speak his mind.
COOPER: Do the multiple reasons that the White House gave for firing director Comey, do they make sense to you?
YATES: You know, I don't want to, since I'm not at DOJ anymore, I don't really want to go much more into it other than that. You know, the explanation seemed to changes on what is an hourly basis right now. So it seems to me that there's only one truth and we out to get to that.
COOPER: The President tweeted James Comey better hope there are no tapes of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press. What you think when you heard that?
YATES: I don't recall exactly what my initial reaction was.
COOPER: Does that sound like a threat to you?
YATES: You know, I don't want to really try to characterize that.
COOPER: Yes. The idea of a direct of the FBI being asked for some sort of a loyalty pledge. The White House says that President Trump did not asked him for loyalty. There are reports thought that was become asked in that dinner. Is that appropriate?
YATES: No. Not to him individually. Our loyalty at the department of justice should be to the people of the United States and to the law and the constitution and no one and nothing else.
COOPER: Why is that? Why isn't loyalty to the President something that should be pledged?
YATES: Because our oath is to uphold the constitution and the law. And that means we got to be able to call it like we see it.
COOPER: So if you were as in when you were in the department of justice, if somebody had asked you to pledged loyalty to them, what would you say?
YATES: I wouldn't have done it.
COOPER: It's inappropriate?
YATES: It's inappropriate.
COOPER: The President who said to NBC News before he fired director Comey, he said, when I decided to just do what I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up stories and excused by then (INAUDIBLE) for having lost in election they should have won. In your view was Russian a reason - the Russia investigation the reason that director James Comey was fired? YATES: I can't speak to that. I think that is one of those important
questions that we all need answers to.
COOPER: Do you believe that the firing of director Comey will have any impact on Russia investigation?
COOPER: Look. I have worked with the men and women of the justice department and the FBI for over 27 years now. And I know that they are really committed to finding the truth whether that truth is. But this is certainly a troubling situation. And it can have chilling effect. And so, they should be able to do their jobs without fear, without any kind of fear at all.
COOPER: Just from a legal standpoint, as someone who worked at the department of justice, would it be obstruction of justice of the President had fired director Comey in part or at all linked to the Russia investigation?
YATES: I think we need to have all of the facts.
COOPER: Former CIA director James Woolsey who have actually worked in the Trump transition said on Sunday that he thinks it will be tough to find a willing candidate to be the new FBI director and that the President's actions are troubling. How critical is it for whoever replaces director Comey to work independently with the President?
YATES: No. It's essential that the FBI director be independent. I mean, that is always the case. It would have been before all of this, but it's even doubly true right now. That the public has got to have confidence that the FBI director is going to call it what here she sees it and not the influence by anything else.
[23:05:09] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You affirm that testimony you about to give to this committee is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God.
COOPER: This is the first time Sally Yates is speaking out publicly since being called to testify last week in front of a Senate subcommittee investigating Russia. She told them that on January 26th, she went to the White House to give them an extraordinary warning who was less than a week after President Trump was inaugurated ambassador the warning was about his national security advisor Michael Flynn.
COOPER: When were you first made aware that General Flynn was lying about his interaction with the Russian ambassador?
YATES: No. First, let me say and I know that this may seem kind of artificial to folks. I can't really talk about what General Flynn's underline contact was because that is based on classified information.
COOPER: Can we say when you were made aware about an issue with his under lying conduct?
YATES: It was in the early part of January when we first got some indication about what he had been involved in. And then sort of the middle part of January when there were false statements that started coming out of the White House based on this representations he had made to people there.
COOPER: Statements like the one the vice president made to CBS News on January 15th when he was asked if Michael Flynn had ever discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What I can confirm having spoken to him about it is that those conversations that happened to occurred around the time that the United States took action to expel diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions.
YATES: We were really concerned about the underlying conduct in and of itself even before there were misrepresentations about it. Then there were misrepresentations coming out at the White House again where they were saying it was based specifically on what general Flynn had told them and they were getting more and more specific and it became clear they weren't going to stop latest being I think it was Monday January 23rd. And so we were balancing that with the need of an investigative agency to be able to complete its investigation and not have any kind of notification negatively impact that investigation.
But when those final misrepresentations were made on the 23rd, the FBI then interviewed general Flynn on the 24 able we got the read out of that on the 25th and then I called again Don McGahn first thing on the morning of the 26th to go over and make the notification.
COOPER: Don McGahn is the White House council. He is the man Sally Yates met with on the 26th of January to warn him about General Flynn.
Why wait until the 26th to take the information to the White House.
YATES: Just said - just like in any matter, we were trying to balance a notification against an impact that it would have an on an FBI investigation.
COOPER: So you would have to wait until Flynn was interviewed by the FBI?
YATES: Well, it was a combination of factors where we looked at that as well as the fact that it was the misrepresentations that didn't really start until mid-January that aggravated the situation.
COOPER: Because of misrepresentations to the vice president to others in the White House that you believed took it to another level.
YATES: It did. It certainly aggravated the situation in terms of the ability for that information to be used for compromise with the Russians.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [23:12:06] COOPER: Continuing our exclusive conversation now with fired acting attorney general Sally Yates. She talked about what she told the White House about General Flynn's behavior, the warning she gave them. She also disputed the White House's characterization of her warning is Performa (ph) or as they called it just a heads up.
Part two of the conversation begins with Miss Yates explaining in greater detail the basis for what for her was deep concern about someone so close to the president.
COOPER: Explain the idea of compromise. How that works?
YATES: Sure. Now, this is then a tried and (INAUDIBLE) of the Russians for decades now. And the gist of it is pretty simple. It is that if they have information that they can use as leverage over someone then they will use that. They even have a word for it compromat (ph). And in this situation, we had both the underlying conduct at this problematic for General Flynn. But then the public misrepresentations about it that were based on lies that General Flynn had told the vice president and others. And the combination of that is absolutely information that the Russians can use as leverage with General Flynn who was the national security advisor like the last person in the world that you would want for the Russians to have leverage over.
COOPER: He is privy, obviously, to highly classified information.
COOPER: What did you tell the White House, hence with Don McGahn?
YATES: Well, we had two meetings with Don McGahn. And I took actually the person who was overseeing this investigation, a senior career official from the department of justice with me there. And we began the meeting by pointing out from statements that have been made by the vice president and Sean Spicer and others with respect to General Flynn's conduct and let him know that we knew that it wasn't true and how we knew it wasn't true and what our evidence was and what he had actually done.
COOPER: Did Don McGahn tell you what he was going to do with that information?
YATES: No. I mean, we went through and told him not only what we knew but why we were concerned about it and why we were telling him about it. And you know, again, that the public had been misled. We were very concerned about the underlying conduct and went through and explained the compromise significance with the Russians and told him specifically that we were giving them this information so they could act.
COOPER: It's important to note Sean Spicer has portrayed Sally Yates' extraordinary warnings to White House in far less dramatic terms. He has repeatedly characterized it as just a head's up. SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The acting attorney general
informed the White House council that they wanted to give quote "a head's up" to us. And she said we want to give you a head up that there may be information. Sally Yates has come over and give us a head's up.
Just because someone gives you a head's up about something and says I want to share some information, doesn't mean you immediately jump the gun and go take an action.
COOPER: But Sally Yates insists it was far more than just a head's up.
Did you ever use the rem heads up like hey, I'm giving you a heads up?
[23:15:05] YATES: No, I absolutely did not use the term head's up. There was nothing casual about this.
COOPER: Heads up does seem to be somewhat of a casual characterization.
YATES: No. I mean, I called Don McGahn and told him I had a very sensitive matter that I need to talk to him about that day and it needed to be in person.
COOPER: And when you actually met, were you just in his regular office?
YATES: We are -- his office is a skip.
COOPER: Sense of security.
COOPER: So he would have been aware that this is unusual to have the acting attorney general coming over and doing this on such urgent notice in a shift.
YATES: Sure, Mr. McGahn got it. He knew that this was serious and that it was important.
COOPER: Just last week President Trump continue to insist he didn't believe Sally Yates has been informing them of an emergency. This is an interview he gave to NBC News.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My White House council Don McGahn came back to me and did not sound like an emergency of many. It didn't make it sound like he was, you know. And she actually didn't make it sound that way either and the hearings the other day, like it had to be done immediately. This man has served for many years. He is a general. He is, in my opinion, a very good person. I believe that it would be very unfair to hear from somebody who we don't even know and immediately run out and fire a general.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So the acting attorney general at the time. COOPER: President Trump said that the meeting with the White House
Council on NBC, he also said quote "my White House council Don McGahn came back to me and did not sound like an emergency." He also said quote "she actually didn't make it, meaning you, she actually didn't make it sound that way either in the hearings the other day." Is he misinformed?
YATES: Well, I wasn't there for the meeting between Mr. McGahn and the President. And so I don't have way of knowing how that meeting went. But I know that we conveyed a sense of urgency when we over and met with the White House council.
COOPER: And a new testimony, he is saying, you didn't make it sound that way either that it was an emergency,
YATES: I don't know if I used the word emergency, but when you call the White House council and say you got to meet with them that day about something you can't talk about on the phone and you tell them that their national security advisor may be able to be blackmailed by the Russians and that you have given misinformation that they will take action, I'm not sure how much of a siren you have to sound.
COOPER: That's not a typical day at the office.
COOPER: The President also said I believe that it would be very unfair to hear from somebody we don't even know, meaning you, immediately run out and fire a general. What would you make in the person who needs characterization if you and somebody they didn't even know?
YATES: I'm not going to speak to his characterization.
COOPER: But people in the White House were aware of who you were.
COOPER: Don McGahn knew who you were?
YATES: They had asked me to stay.
COOPER: They were aware of your position as acting attorney general.
YATES: Right, right.
COOPER: Don McGahn actually asked you at that first meeting whether or not you thought the national security advisor should be fired. What did you say?
YATES: I told them it wasn't our call.
COOPER: Was the underline conduct illegal? Was it illegality of all?
YATES: There is certainly a criminal statute that was implicated by his conduct. COOPER: Yates was asked to come back to the White House for another
meeting with the White House council on January 27th, the day after her initial warning. Yates disputes the way the White House is characterizing the reason for the second meeting.
Sean Spicer said that meeting was to discuss issues that were left unclear in your first meeting to Don McGahn. Do you feel that you were clear in your warning to McGahn in that first meeting?
YATES: I don't think there was anything at all unclear about the first meeting. Mr. McGahn had some additional issues he wanted to discuss that there was nothing unclear about the first meeting.
COOPER: Can you say what the additional issues were?
YATES: Sure. There were three or four different things that he raised, you know. The first issue that he raised was essentially, why does DOJ care if one White House official lies to another White House official? And so, we walked him back for the same things that we discussed the day before that it was really a whole lot more than just one White House official lying to another.
COOPER: This is the vice President of the United States being lied to. He then went and told the American people.
YATES: Exactly. And then that we explained the compromise situation that this created again. So we walked back all of those things.
COOPER: So that's why the department of justice was interesting because of the underlying behavior but also the potential for compromise.
YATES: Right. And we felt like --.
COOPER: It was a national security threat.
COOPER: You have no doubt about that?
YATES: I don't think anybody in the Intel community has a doubt about that.
COOPER: The seriousness of her warning is not the only significant discrepancy between Yates and the White House. She said she made the evidence investigators have gathered on Flynn available to the White House on Monday, January 30th. That's not what the White House said.
SPICER: They didn't get access to that underline evidence described by Ms. Yates until February 2nd.
COOPER: He couldn't look (INAUDIBLE).
YATES: Yes. It was ready on Monday, the 30th.
COOPER: So you wanted the White House to act. YATES: Absolutely, yes.
COOPER: To do so.
[23:20:00] YATES: We expected the White House to act.
COOPER: Did you expect them to act quickly?
COOPER: There was urgency to the information.
YATES: Yes. I called on January 30th, that Monday morning to let Mr. McGahn know that it was ready. We had made arrangements over the weekend. That was one of the other issue that he had raised in the second meeting was whether they could look at the under lying evidence that established General Flynn's conduct. And you know, this is really unusual for us or for the FBI to allow that.
COOPER: Because there was an ongoing investigation.
YATES: Right. But this was really important. We have given them a good bit of detail about what the conduct was. This is not a situation where we came in and just gave him a conclusion. We walked through in a fair amount of detail what General Flynn had done. But --.
COOPER: Had you also given the White House information about what General Flynn had told the FBI in his interviewed.
YATES: No, we didn't. We told him that he was interviewed. And we told him he had interviewed two days before that but we did not tell him what he had said.
COOPER: Did done Don McGahn want to know how Flynn had done in his FBI interview?
YATES: Yes, he did. He asked me how he did. And I just declined to answer that.
YATES: Well, because that was something that really impacted our investigation. That wasn't information that the White House needed to know to be able to make a national security assessment.
COOPER: So if Flynn had lied to FBI investigators or had not been credible in his answers that - well that is important to your investigation, the FBI investigation. That is not something you felt was important for the White House to know.
YATES: It wasn't essential for them to know on that. I mean, we were trying to put them on notice what he had done and the fact he lied about if and the compromise situation that this created and we were trying to give them as much informations we could about that again so that they can act. COOPER: On that Monday, January 30th, three days after first warning
the White House about Michael Flynn, Sally Yates was fired. She been instructed the department of justice not to defend President Trump's executive order on immigration. Sally Yates was out and Michael Flynn was still the national security advisor.
You are watching day after day after day go by and nothing seems to have happen to the national security advisor that you have informed the White House about just as a private citizen at that point. Did it concern you?
YATES: Well sure, I was concerned about it.
COOPER: It took the White House 18 days after Sally Yates first warned them to get rid of Michael Flynn. On February 13th, he resigned as national security advisor. The next day Sean Spicer said he was let go because of an issue of trust not because he had done anything illegal.
SPICER: When the President heard the information as presented by White House council, he instinctively thought the general council - General Flynn didn't do anything wrong. And the White House council's review of corroborated that. There is not an illegal issue but rather a trust issue.
COOPER: Do you agree there was no legal issue with Flynn's underlying behavior?
YATES: I don't know how the White House reached the conclusion that there was no legal issue. It certainly wasn't from my discussion with them.
COOPER: Do you think Michael Flynn should be fired?
YATES: Whether he is fired or not is a decision for the President of the United States to make but doesn't seem like that's the person who should be sitting in the national security advisor position.
COOPER: Mike Flynn was like, after the "Washington Post" reported the story, some Republicans have accused you of leaking it? Did you leak to the "Washington Post?"
YATES: Absolutely not.
COOPER: Did you authorize somebody to leak to the Post?
YATES: Absolutely not. I did not and would not leak classified information.
COOPER: Have you ever leaked classified information?
COOPER: The President seems to suggest that you were behind this "Washington Post." The morning before you testified, he tweeted ask Sally Yates under oath if she knows how classified information got it to newspaper soon after she explained to White House council.
He seems to believe that you - you are the leaker. When you heard that, what did you think?
YATES: There have been a number of tweets that have given me pause.
COOPER: You want to elaborate those?
COOPER: If you hadn't been fired, if you are still in your position and you hadn't seen action over the course of that 18 days, was there more your role as the acting attorney general would have permitted you to do?
YATES: I would have gone back to the White House.
COOPER: If you were still the acting attorney general, you would have gone back to the White House.
YATES: I have been knocking on the door then, yes.
YATES: Because I would have been concerned that we had a national security advisor who was compromised. I wouldn't be able to control what happened, but I would have gone back to White House.
COOPER: What sort of questions would you have asked?
YATES: What have you done?
[23:28:38] COOPER: Back now to our exclusive interview with fired acting attorney general Sally Yates.
Before she became a household name, she was career prosecutor and prefer to stay out of the spotlight. She comes from long line of lawyers. And her father and grandfather both worked to state of (INAUDIBLE) judges in Georgia. Her grandmother was the first woman to join the joint of bar association. Sally Yates brought a story of legal to the office and has stellar record at the department of justice. But after her Senate testimony on Russia none of that stopped the White House from labelling her a political opponent of the President.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How is she a political opponent of the president? She was acting attorney general that he kept on.
SPICER: The -- appointed by the Obama administration. COOPER: The day after you testified the White House called you a
political opponent of President Trump. Are you a political opponent of President Trump?
YATES: No. Look I'm a 27 year veteran of the department of justice.
COOPER: Some people out there now will say look, politics must play a role in some way. I mean, you have political beliefs.
YATES: Yes. But that has absolutely nothing to do with how I did my job here. And I have been doing my job for a whole lot of years in DOJ. And even when you are appointed by the President, you know, at that point, the politics is supposed to end at DOJ.
COOPER: After she appeared before the Senate, "Time" magazine reports President Trump talked to them about Sally Yates' testimony.
COOPER: The President was with the "Time" magazine reporter watching a clip of you and DNI Clapper testifying and being asked about the unmasking process, but I got to put (INAUDIBLE). The President then said quote "watch them start to choke like dogs. Watch what happens. They are desperate for breath." What do you think when you hear that?
[23:30:14] YATES: I'm not going to dignify that with a response.
COOPER: You come from a family that has been involved in Democratic politics in Georgia. The White House put out a briefing paper on you after you were fired saying that your husband made donations to Democrats including President Obama, clearly implying that you were partisan.
YATES: No. I certainly was appointed by President Obama but as been taught about a little while ago. I have been working for DOJ for almost 30 years now.
COOPER: You were hired by Bob Barr.
YATES: Yes. And Republican and Democratic administration.
COOPER: Are you a Democrat?
YATES: Yes, I am a Democrat.
COOPER: Sally Yates is a Democrat but she was first hired to department of justice in 1989 by Bob Barr, a staunch Republican.
So tell me why you started in the law?
YATES: Well, I come from a long line of lawyers in my family, lawyers and Methodist preachers. And after I graduated --.
COOPER: Well, there's the options (ph).
YATES: I think that was it. It was pretty much a binary choice here, law or preaching. And after law school I came to Washington and worked for a couple years and as a thought about career option everything else seemed like a job and practicing law seemed like a profession.
COOPER: Why did you pick government service?
YATES: Well, I didn't start out that way, actually. I went to a big firm in Atlanta after law school.
COOPER: You were there for like three or four years?
YATES: Yes, for three years. And when I was in law school, I didn't have any thought that was going to be a prosecutor. Didn't even take any criminal law classes which probably would concern some people getting the job I ended up with. But I went to private practice and then decided that I would go to the U.S. attorney's office. At the time, I was thinking more that I would get some trial experience and an opportunity to do some work that was really more meaningful but I was totally unprepared for just how meaningful it would be.
COOPER: What about the work kept you going in it?
YATES: Well, you know, it's a really unique opportunity as a lawyer to be able to be on the right side every time. And I understand that some people don't always agree with whether we are on the right side, but when you work for the justice department your job is not to win cases, it's to seek justice.
COOPER: There's clarity to it.
YATES: Yes, absolutely. I know it sounds incredibly corny, but to feel like you are doing something to make the community safer but also hopefully doing it in a way that instills the confidence of the people that we are serving. It is, you know, once you have done that, it's hard to go back to just two companies fighting over money.
COOPER: She rose through the ranks. She was the lead prosecutor in the Earth Rudolf (ph) case, the Olympic park bomber. And she also went after lawmakers in Georgia for public corruption and successfully tried a series of cases against Atlanta city officials including the city's Democratic mayor Bill Campbell. Later, she became the first woman to head the U.S. attorney's office in the northern district of Georgia.
YATES: I'm very grateful for this opportunity and grateful for President Obama's nomination.
COOPER: In 2015 President Barack Obama nominated her to become deputy attorney general under Loretta Lynch.
Did politics rear its head in your job and your career over the years?
YATES: I mean, it reared its head in the sense that U.S. attorneys under him on the serving would change depending on the administration, but not in terms of how our cases operate. And you know, that's something I think most folks don't entirely appreciate. And that is the wall that exists between the justice department and the White House and the rest of the administration.
COOPER: What do you mean that wall?
YATES: The White House and the administration more broadly, does not and should not, have any influence whatsoever over any matter at the department of justice, any criminal matter or civil matter. That's really for DOJ to decide. And I think that the public really counts on that independence.
COOPER: That's crucial. It is critical to be -- for the department of justice to be independent.
YATES: Absolutely. Always has been. This has been really a core principle with the department of justice is that there is certainly can be policy issues that are administration wide and which is appropriate to have discussion with the White House about those policies. When it comes to the cases of the department of justice, the White House and the administration should have absolutely no influence over investigations or prosecutions.
COOPER: You don't want the White House calling up and inquiring about investigations.
YATES: No. And in fact, there are really strict rules about that. They are not permitted to call and contact anyone at the department of justice. And in fact, there are only two people at DOJ that are authorized to even have any contact with the White House in this regard and that is the attorney general and the deputy attorney general.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Miss Yates, you are going into a different world.
COOPER: During her confirmation hearing in 2015, Yates was asked by then senator Jeff Sessions if she would be able to stand up to the President.
[23:35:05] JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Do you think the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to the President if he asks for something that is improper. If the views the President wants to execute are unlawful should the attorney general or 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: Like any CEO with a law firm sometimes the lawyers have to tell the CEO, Mr. CEO, you can't do that. Don't do that. It will get us sued. It's going to be in violation of the law you'll regret it, please, no matter how head strong they might be. Do you feel that's the duty of the attorney general's office?
YATES: I do believe that's the duty of the attorney general's office.
COOPER: Session voted against her but she was confirmed with wide bipartisan support. Two years later as acting attorney general, she did exactly what she told Sessions she would do after President Trump issued his executive order on immigration on Friday, January 27th.
TRUMP: I'm establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America. We don't want them here.
COOPER: Just hours after her second meeting at the White House to discuss General Flynn, that executive ordered temporarily banned immigrants from seven mostly Muslim nations.
When did you first hear about the travel ban?
YATES: Well, it was Friday afternoon, later Friday afternoon around 5:00 or so when I was in the car on the way to the airport.
COOPER: This is the same day --?
YATES: Same day.
COOPER: Of you second meeting with Don McGahn?
YATES: Right. I had been meeting with Mr. McGahn around 3:00 that afternoon. And his office there at the White House. And I was on my way back to Atlanta for an event the next night. My husband was being honored at a dinner in Atlanta. So I was on the way to the airport and I got a call from my principal deputy saying he saw online, on a news report that the President had issued an executive order with respect to immigration. And this was the very first we had heard of it.
[23:41:18] COOPER: Continuing now our exclusive conversation with Sally Yates.
A moment ago, you heard the attacks on her. Her brief time as acting attorney general under the Trump administration was tumultuous to say the least. And it came to a head when the White House announced the President's so called travel ban.
COOPER: You're the acting attorney general of the United States of America.
COOPER: And you did not know about this executive order.
YATES: That's right.
COOPER: The department of justice has an office of legal counsel and they had been asked to weigh in on this executive order.
YATES: They have been asked to review to review for that is called form and legality.
COOPER: If the department of justice, their office of legal counsel was given a heads up so to speak about this and asked to review it, wouldn't they have given you head's up about it?
YATES: Normally, they would. But my understanding is that they were asked not to tell us about it.
COOPER: The department of justice's office of legal counsel was advised not to inform you specifically, the acting attorney general about this executive order.
YATES: That's my understanding.
COOPER: Do you know why you were not informed?
YATES: I don't know. And I wasn't informed.
COOPER: Is that normal procedure?
YATES: No. First I heard of that.
COOPER: You never heard it happening before.
COOPER: Was it, well, just don't kick this up higher in the department of justice or don't tell Sally Yates?
YATES: I don't know all the details about that.
COOPER: Reports around the country the legal challenges came the next day. Sally Yates had to decide what she would do.
YATES: We spend the weekend and a flurry of activity trying to get our arms around what is this thing and what are they trying to accomplish.
COOPER: When did you make the decision you were going to instruct your attorneys, the department of justice not to enforce this or not to argue this?
YATES: Well, on Monday, I brought in the folks from the department of justice who were hands on involve in this. That would include the career people at DOJ, as well as the Trump appointees that were at DOJ at this time. And I had pulled up many of the legal challenges that we had and had read through those, and looked at cases, had written down the issues that I was concerned about.
COOPER: Had you already seen what was happening at airports?
YATES: Sure. Yes, on TV. I have seen what is happening.
COOPER: You have seen people coming in, people demonstrating, you saw the impact that was having. Did that have an impact on you? YATES: It had an impact in terms of the chaos that was created. But
I was trying to get a handle on what did this executive order do and was it lawful and constitutional. By Monday, I was advised that we are going to have to take a position on the constitutionality statue. The facts reflected that this really was an attempt to make good on President's campaign promise of a Muslim ban. That is was about religion and that if the department of justice on something as essential as religious freedom, I couldn't in good conscience send our DOJ lawyers in to make an argument that wasn't grounded in truth.
COOPER: On Monday, January 30th, Yates made a decision. She issued an order to the department of justice not to defend the President's executive order.
You knew at this point, you were taking - you were challenging the President of the United States.
YATES: I didn't view it as a challenge to the President of the United States. I viewed it as fulfilling my oath and doing my job.
COOPER: You knew this was going to bring you into conflict with the President of United States, this desire. Does you think about that?
COOPER: Was that - is that an intimidating thought? Is that a, obviously, I mean, that decision you must have known would change the trajectory of your career from then on.
YATES: Well, certainly, intellectually, I knew that there was a chance I would be fired as a result of this. You know, because stupid not to recognize that was a possibility. But I also knew how I lived and tried to do my job for all of those years, 20-plus years before this. And it seemed to me that to be able to fulfill my oath to represent the people of the United States, to uphold the law and the constitution that this was the course of action that I needed to follow.
[23:45:25] COOPER: Several hours after telling department of justice lawyers not to defend the President's executive order, Sally Yates was fired.
How did you find out you were fired?
YATES: A letter arrived at my office door.
COOPER: And you got the letter?
COOPER: Is director Comey present the letter that you got. So, you actually got the letter?
YATES: I got the letter.
COOPER: Do you know as soon as you got that letter what it was? YATES: I strongly had a strong suspicion as to what it was.
COOPER: Is it a letter from the President himself?
YATES: No. It was from someone else at the White House?
COOPER: can you say what does that like after 27 years ti read that letter?
YATES: No, intellectually, I certainly knew that this was a possibility that this could happen, but I would be less than honest with you if didn't say it wasn't still a punch in the gut when the letter arrived at the door.
COOPER: That's emotionally what it felt like?
YATES: Sure. But to have done anything else I felt like what have been an avocation of my responsibility. So I was - when looking to decide. But given the situation that I was in, I couldn't have done anything else and lived with myself.
[23:50:19] COOPER: Before the break you heard Sally Yates lay out her decision to not enforce the President's travel ban. As we continue the conversation, she answered the criticism that she drew for including allegations that it was more about politics than policy.
COOPER: Do you believe the President made the right decision in firing you?
YATES: He certainly had the authority to fire me. And that's all I'll say on that.
COOPER: I want to read some of the criticism that you received both from Republicans but also from Democrats. Stephen Miller in the White House said your behavior was reckless, irresponsible, improper. Former deputy attorney general in George W. H. Bush called it quote "foolish naked political move by what appears to be an ambitious holdover official." Was it a political move?
YATES: No. I was doing my job.
COOPER: Politics you say had nothing to do with it.
YATES: Absolutely not, no.
COOPER: Pardon law professor Alan Dershowitz said that you are a terrific public servant but quote "I think she made a serious mistake here. This is holdover heroism. It is so easy to be heroin when you are nor appointed by this president and when you are on the side." He went on to say he thinks you made a political decision and not a legal one.
YATES: Well, look. I struggled over the decision whether to resign or whether to direct the department of justice not to defend.
COOPER: You thought about resigning.
YATES: Absolutely. Now, I went back and forth.
COOPER: Because that's what, you know, two former attorney generals, Alberto Gonzales and William Bahr say you should have resigned if you really disagree with this order and that essentially you were grandstanding looking to get out in a way that was such up for a political (INAUDIBLE).
YATES: Well, putting all that step aside, you know, I think it's a fair question to ask why didn't you just resign. And that is something I grappled with during that time. But sort of the bottom line is that I felt like resigning would have protected my personal integrity. But it would not have protected the integrity of the department of justice.
This does allow you by essentially confronting the President of the United States on this and declining to ask DOJ lawyers to support this executive order, it does set you up in a way -- I mean it is a dramatic finale to a career and sort of brings you into the public mind in a way that you weren't previously. The idea that it's setting up for some sort of political career.
YATES: Look, I believe in public service. And I hope that in the future I'll be able to have an impact on issue that is I care about. But anybody who knows me knows I have never been interested in running for office.
COOPER: From the time she was fired Sally Yates didn't speak publicly until she was asked to testify in front of the Senate judiciary subcommittee on Russia last week. While many Democratic senators praised her actions, she faced tough questions from Republicans.
SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Are you familiar with 8USC-section 1182.
YATES: Not off the top of my head, no.
CRUZ: Well, it is the binding statutory authority for the executive order that you refused to implement and that led to your termination. So it certainly it a relevant not a terribly obscure statute.
YATES: I'm familiar with that and I am also familiar with an additional provision of the INA that says no person shall receive preference or be discriminated against in issuance into the visa because of race, nationality or place of birth. That I believe was promulgated after the statute that you just quoted.
COOPER: No other President has been denied his authority under that 1952 provision including Jimmy Carter's stopped issuing visas to Iranians during the hostage crisis. So I guess the question is, did you go too far?
YATES: Well, I don't know that we ever had a situation where the true intent behind a President's actions had been laid out in the kind of vivid detail that it was here. And an intent that is unconstitutional in my view.
COOPER: Assuming this goes to the Supreme Court, that's what it's going to boil down to an argument over that 1952 provision.
YATES: I don't know -- I think it will boil down to -- well, it could be a number of issues on that. But certainly I would think the President's motivation, what he was trying to accomplish was this an effort to disfavor Muslims, essentially an effort to make good on the travel ban as best he could excuse me the Muslim ban as best he could. I would expect that that certainly would be an issue before the Supreme Court.
[23:58:05] COOPER: The White House put out a background paper on Sally Yates. But inside an article speculating about whether she would run as a Democrat for governor of Georgia. In the final part of our exclusive interview I asked Sally Yates, the fired acting attorney general, whether she has any interest in that or any other job in politics.
COOPER: Are you planning on getting into politics?
COOPER: There are some surrogates for the President who said or, you know, pundit who support the President who said you have already been approached by folks in Georgia about running for governor or some political office.
YATES: You know I read that but I haven't even returned the calls. I'm not running for governor.
COOPER: It's well-known the President watches a lot of TV cable news. If he was watching tonight, is there anything you want to say to him.
YATES: I don't think so, no.
COOPER: After 27 years working if the department of justice, is it strange to have your career defined in the larger public I'll just ask, by the last week of your career? He is that's basically.
COOPER: People see you on the street they recognize you, recognize you as you know the person who testified or who -- who took the actions you did on the executive order involved with Michael Flynn. You have an entire career before that. Is it strange to kind of be defined by the last couple of days?
YATES: Yes it feels a little weird after having been you know a line prosecutor, and a U.S. attorney and deputy attorney general that folks would define me in that way. On the other hand, you know be, they wouldn't have any reason to know about the work that I had done and all the years prior to that. And I believe that the actions that I took with respect to those two issues and in the last ten days were consistent with how I carried out might responsibilities the 27 years prior to that.
COOPER: You have no regrets?
COOPER: You wouldn't do anything differently.
COOPER: And that's our Special Report thanks for watching. See you again soon.