Of all the unlikely icons to emerge from the saga of Donald Trump’s multiple attempts to block people from seven (eventually six) Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, perhaps none has been quite so surprising as Sally Yates, the career public servant and former acting attorney general whom Trump fired after she ordered the Department of Justice not to defend the ban.
In a lengthy New Yorker profile, published online on Monday, Yates offered her clearest explanation to date for why she felt compelled to stand up against the president’s order.
“I had an obligation to also protect the integrity of the Department of Justice,” Yates explained, responding to criticism that she should have simply resigned her post if she found the travel ban so problematic.
“And that meant that D.O.J. doesn’t go into court on something as fundamental as religious freedom, making an argument about something that I was not convinced was grounded in truth,” she continued, before framing the president’s executive order in clear historical context (emphasis mine):
In fact, I thought, based on all the evidence I had, that it was based on religion. And then I thought back to Jim Crow laws, or literacy tests. Those didn’t say that the purpose was to prevent African-Americans from voting. But that’s what the purpose was.
This is a defining, founding principle of our country: religious freedom. How can the Department of Justice go in and defend something that so significantly undermines that, when we’re not convinced it’s true?
Of course, the legalese surrounding Yates’ decision not to enforce the president’s order is slightly more complicated than that—a point Yates made abundantly clear when she shot down Sen. Ted Cruz during a Senate hearing.
Nevertheless, Yates’ underlying point is undeniable: The United States has a shameful history of twisting the letter of the law for the sole purpose of discriminating against a vulnerable minority. And, for the short time she was in a position to do so, she was not going to let that happen again.