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Former Justice Department Official Steps Into The Spotlight

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've now called one of last evening's speakers. Sally Yates served as deputy attorney general during the Obama administration and then just a bit of the Trump administration. She was fired by the president the weeks after he took office for refusing to defend an early version of his travel ban on Muslim majority countries. Ms. Yates. Welcome to the program.

SALLY YATES: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: What did you mean last night when you said the president is trying to, quote, "weaponize" the Justice Department?

YATES: Well, what we've seen really from the very beginning with this president is that he seems to view the Justice Department like his personal law firm and tries to use it to go after his enemies, starting with lock her up and Hillary Clinton, and most recently with the pardon of Roger Stone.

INSKEEP: Although, there's also the reality that the Justice Department could be coming after people close to you. I'd like to know if you're prepared for an event later this fall. There's this thing called the Durham Probe, as you know very well, by the Justice Department. Looking into the origins of the investigation of Trump's campaign, do you feel you can defend every decision made by President Obama's Department of Justice in 2016?

YATES: Well, look. I am very comfortable with the origins of the Russia investigation from the standpoint of whether it was politically motivated. You know, Michael Horowitz, the Department of Justice inspector general, did a very thorough investigation. Now over 170 witnesses, I think a million pages of documents, and he concluded that there was absolutely no political motivation with respect to this. When you look at what we were dealing with here, a foreign adversary's attempt to intervene in our election, we would have been derelict in our duty not to initiate an investigation on that. And I think the Senate Intel Committee's report that came out yesterday, certainly underscores that.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned that the Senate Intelligence Committee put out this bipartisan report. It did find links, for example, between Paul Manafort, the president's campaign chairman. And a Russian intelligence operative confirmed, again, that Russia took part in hacking, that WikiLeaks was part of it. This is all bipartisan. But the Republican response is fundamentally - there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. What do you make of that response?

YATES: Yeah. I think as if you repeat this mantra over and over, then somehow that is going to rewrite the history of what actually happened here with the Russians interference in our 2016 election and actually, even more frighteningly, what's happening right now as we speak. I haven't read the Senate intel report yet, but from what I have read the excerpts of it, it lays out in even more detail than the Mueller report did, the interactions that the Trump campaign had with the Russians on that and that they expected to and welcomed the assistance from the Russians. You know, that's not what we would expect of our presidential candidates and certainly not what we would expect of a sitting president.

INSKEEP: What do you mean when you refer to what's happening right now as we speak?

YATES: Well, you know, our intel agency not too long ago came out and with a report indicating that the Russians are at it again. In fact, they never stopped in their efforts to try to assist Donald Trump in his reelection. That was the unanimous view of the intel community, the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Mueller report, that that was the effort and that it's still going on now. And, you know, it's frightening to me that we could become kind of blase about the idea that a foreign adversary is trying to pick our president.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about a sensitive question that a Biden administration would face if he were elected and took office in January. He addressed it the other day in an interview with our colleague, Lulu Garcia-Navarro. The question is if he wins the presidential election, would he want to prosecute President Trump, would be then former President Trump? Let's listen.

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JOE BIDEN: I will not interfere with the Justice Department's judgment of whether or not they think they should pursue a prosecution.

INSKEEP: OK. So he says he'd leave it to the professionals. You were a professional at the Justice Department, so help us think through that question. How would the DOJ approach the question of prosecuting a former president?

YATES: Well, look. I'm speaking in a hypothetical manner here because I don't know precisely what the evidence is with respect to President Trump or others there. But I think the department would go through and make an analysis based on the facts and the law like it does in every case and make a responsible decision that's not based on politics. That's how the department has always operated. That's the only manner in which the department can operate and engender the trust of the public that it serves.

INSKEEP: Isn't that ultimately a political decision, though, no matter what the evidence says? It's a huge political decision whether you would go after a former president like that.

YATES: Oh, it would be an enormous decision. And I think one of the things that will be really important is that our next administration recognize the gravity of those decisions and the kind of impact that it could have on the country.

INSKEEP: Would you favor, prosecution aside, a thorough investigation of how the Justice Department has been managed these past almost four years?

YATES: Oh, gosh. You know, I'm not going to speculate on that. I think, you know, we've got our hands full right now trying to think about an election and then sort of what happens after that. That's still up in the air.

INSKEEP: But is that necessary? It's not a speculation. It either is or isn't necessary to reassure the public as to what the DOJ is doing. Do you think it's necessary?

YATES: Well, you know, the reason why I'm resisting whether it's necessary or not is that, you know, I'm a careful lawyer. And I think you have to be really specific about what it is that would be investigated and who would be investigated.

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INSKEEP: OK. Sally Yates, thanks for your time, really appreciate it.

YATES: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: She is a former deputy attorney general in the Obama administration. She spoke at the Democratic convention last night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.