Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates is out of government after President Trump fired her in January, but her growing profile among Democrats as a staunch opponent of the president has sparked rumors of a political future.
Yates’s testimony Monday about the Justice Department’s investigation into ties between President Trump’s allies and Russia has only intensified the buzz.
Some Democrats in Georgia, Yates’s home state, want her to run in the 2018 gubernatorial race on the grounds that her prominent clashes with Trump positions her as a concrete embodiment of the Democratic “resistance.”
Yates, who spent 27 years working in the Justice Department before Trump fired her, has given no public indication that she’s interested in a bid. Still, some top gubernatorial hopefuls in the state are already considering how Yates could alter the race.
“Sally Yates’s calm and strong demeanor showed me she could be a great governor of Georgia. ... Her bold resistance, and how she stood up to a president who ordered her to do something unlawful and unconstitutional, has catapulted her profile,” said Tharon Johnson, a Georgia Democratic strategist and campaign aide to former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOur remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Chelsea Manning tests positive for COVID-19 MORE.
“She will have to give Georgians a really good reason why she’s not considering running for a constitutional office in 2018.”
Yates rose from relative obscurity in the early days of the Trump administration when she took over as acting attorney general ahead of then-Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability Stanford professors ask DOJ to stop looking for Chinese spies at universities in US Overnight Energy & Environment — Democrats detail clean electricity program MORE’s (R-Ala.) confirmation. Just nine days after Trump’s inauguration, Trump fired Yates for refusing to defend in court the president’s original temporary travel ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries.
After Yates’s contentious exit, reports emerged that she had warned the administration that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had lied to Vice President Pence and other White House officials about the nature of his conversations with the Russian ambassador and could have opened himself up to blackmail from the Russians.
Yates’s warning to Trump’s team and the unexplained 18-day delay between her White House meeting and Flynn’s termination gave new ammunition to Democrats eager to make connections between Trump and Russia.
Democrats lionized Yates in the days after her firing, and buzz built about her potential political future.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, one of the most prominent Democrats in the state, said late last month he is “very hopeful that she will give the race very strong consideration,” although he said he hadn’t spoken to her about a bid. Other Georgia Democrats have echoed Reed.
Those calls were compounded by Yates’s Monday appearance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she confirmed the reports of her warnings about Flynn.
She also sparred with Republican senators who criticized her for not following Trump’s directive on his travel ban.
After Sen. John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats make case to Senate parliamentarian for 8 million green cards Democrats to make pitch Friday for pathway to citizenship in spending bill Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime MORE (R-Texas), a member of Senate Republican leadership, blasted Yates’s decision not to follow the administration’s directive on the ban as “enormously disappointing,” Yates pushed back by noting that senators had asked her if she would stand up to the president in her 2015 confirmation hearing, during the Obama administration.
“I made a determination that I believed it was unlawful and inconsistent with the principles of the Department of Justice, and I said no. That’s what I promised you I would do, and that’s what I did,” Yates said.
She also pushed back on Sen. Tex Cruz (R-Texas), a popular punching bag for the left, while arguing that Trump’s campaign statements about the ban tainted his administration’s policy.
Georgia Democrats who spoke with The Hill specifically highlighted those exchanges as proof of the kind of candidate she could be.
“It strengthens her candidacy — the fact that she’s dealing with issues at a very high level, the fact that she’s gone toe-to-toe with some of the leading folks on the national stage. She can bring that gravitas to the local stage,” one Georgia Democrat said.
There’s clear enthusiasm for Yates outside of Georgia — people at a Wednesday protest outside the White House chanted her name and called her a “hero,” according to The Washington Post. And liberal writers and pundits celebrated her Senate testimony.
Yates spent much of her life and Justice Department career in Georgia. Born in Atlanta, she received both her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Georgia before working her way up through the U.S. attorney’s office in the state’s Northern District.
As a prosecutor, Yates took on high-profile defendants like 1996 Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph and Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, a Democrat caught up in a bribery scandal.
Still, Yates has shown no signs of weighing any political bid.
Asked about the potential for a bid during a February panel in Atlanta, Yates told the crowd, “I am just here in the audience,” according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Richard Ray, the former president of the Georgia AFL-CIO, told The Hill that speculation is “rampant” about Yates, who he believes would be a “great candidate.” But he hasn’t seen any signs that she’s interested.
“She hasn’t been out meeting with the people you have to meet with if you have these ambitions, and I know most of the ones that you have to meet with,” he said.
A Georgia Democrat told The Hill that the state’s top Democratic fundraisers haven’t heard any indication that she’s interested, either.
If politics are in Yates’s immediate future, the state’s 2018 gubernatorial race is the most obvious target.
Candidates are already lining up to replace Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who is term-limited.
The Democratic side could get crowded even if Yates stays out. State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams has all but announced a bid, and a number of other politicians might jump in, too. At least one potential candidate has discussed the effect of Yates’s candidacy on the field, according to one source.
The race would still be a long shot for Democrats — Georgia hasn’t had a Democratic governor since 2003, and Trump won the state in November by 5 percentage points despite increased investment by Democrats.
With a potentially crowded field assembling for the top spot in the state, Ray said he’d rather Yates run for state attorney general, a move that would allow her to ease into state politics and play to her strengths.
While Yates might be a sought-after candidate, a jump into politics would give Trump and his allies evidence to tar Yates’s official actions as motivated by ambition or partisanship.
Even so, many Democrats want Yates to seize the current political moment. And with speculation continuing to mount, the rumors likely won’t rest until Democrats hear from Yates herself.
“The time is now for Sally Yates to answer the plea and the call from Georgia voters,” Johnson, the Georgia Democratic strategist, said.
“Until Sally Yates says she’s not running, I think she’s considering a run.”