GOP senators spent today’s hearing belittling and ignoring Sally Yates in a craven effort to talk about anything other than Russia.
On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened to formally delve into the grim task of debriefing Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. The main event was the testimony of Sally Yates, the former Acting Attorney General who, shortly before she was fired by President Trump, had reportedly warned the White House about disgraced former National Security Director Michael Flynn’s connections to Russia. But even at a hearing literally titled “Russian Interference in the 2016 United States Election,” the esteemed Republican senators in attendance spent the afternoon falling all over themselves in an outrageously transparent and hilariously frantic effort to talk about anything else.
More or less, this is how the day unfolded: Democrats asked Yates about her knowledge of Flynn’s alleged Kremlin ties, especially in the context of her abrupt termination. They did this, presumably, because they are concerned that a hostile foreign power tipped the balance of power in a United States presidential election, and because they want to know the extent, if any, to which Trump’s team knew of or participated in the operation. Their Republican counterparts, naturally, responded by using their allotted time to yell about “unmasking,” ask basic questions about constitutional law, and talk about Hillary Clinton’s emails, because it is now apparently GOP policy that all elected officials must say the words “private email server” at least once a day.
Here is South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, who would have you believe that the most important aspect of the alleged Trump-Russia links is finding out how that information made it into the press.
Here is John Cornyn, the former Texas attorney general and state Supreme Court justice, angrily asking Yates about her refusal to enforce President Trump’s stupid Muslim ban—the event that precipitated her termination. (Russia? Never heard of it!) Multiple federal courts have since endorsed Yates’ view by putting the ban in the trash, and there is a proud American tradition of attorneys general refusing to comply with orders they believe to be unlawful, but neither recent nor distant history was going to prevent Cornyn from working himself into a self-righteous, condescending huff.
CORNYN: I voted for your confirmation because I believe that you had a distinguished career, but I have to tell you that I find it
enormously disappointing that you vetoed the decision of the Office of
Legal Counsel with regard to the lawfulness of the President’s order
and decided instead that you would countermand the executive order of
the President of the United States because you happened to disagree
with it as a policy matter.
This characterization of Yates’ actions is nowhere close to accurate, but Yates, to her credit, simply responded by showing the receipts.
YATES: I appreciate that, Senator, and let me make one thing clear—it was not purely as a policy matter. In fact, I remember my
confirmation hearing, in an exchange that I had with you and
your colleagues, where you specifically asked me, if the president
asked me to do something that was unlawful or unconstitutional…would I
say no. And I looked at this, I made a determination that I believed
that it was unlawful…and I said no. That’s what I promised you
that I would do. And that’s what I did.
Never one to allow a fellow Texan to outdo him, Ted Cruz began by asking a nonsensical question about Hillary Clinton’s emails before also relitigating the Muslim ban. Again, Yates politely dragged him.
The very best Ted Cruz self-owns, in a surprising upset, do not come when he endorses the presidential candidacy of a man who called his wife ugly. No, they instead come when Cruz, a self-professed Constitution superfan, smugly reads selectively quoted federal statutes while pretending not to think about the obvious constitutional implications of his conclusions—or, even more embarrassingly, when he meekly dismisses reasonable responses as “partisan.” This exchange, which Cruz teed up in the faux-folksiest Matthew McConaughey-esqe country lawyer manner he could muster, was particularly delightful:
CRUZ: A final, very brief question. In over 200 years of the Department of Justice’s history, are you aware of any instance in
which the Department of Justice has formally approved the legality of
a policy, and then, three days later, the Attorney General has directed
the Department not to follow that policy, and to defy that policy?
YATES: I’m not, but I’m also not aware of a situation where the Office of Legal Counsel was advised not to tell the Attorney General
about it until after it was over.
Finally, there was Louisiana’s newest senator, John Kennedy—no relation, thank God—who really should spend some time on Wikipedia before talking at the next hearing he chooses to attend. His question:
I don’t mean to wax too metaphysical here, but at what point does an
act of Congress or an executive order become “unconstitutional”? …
What I’m getting at, and I don’t mean disrespect: Who appointed you to
the United States Supreme Court? Isn’t it a court of final
jurisdiction that decides what’s constitutional or not?
Uh, Senator, federal trial courts and appellate courts are perfectly within the scope of their authority to rule on constitutional issues. (Example: the Muslim ban, which Kennedy and his peers conveniently forgot all afternoon.) The expression that briefly flitted across Yates’ face before she could compose herself and respond was equal parts genuine confusion and unadulterated contempt.
The funnest thing about this debacle—not in the “ha-ha” way, but in the “need to spend several minutes screaming in a soundproofed closet” way—is that all four of these lawmakers are lawyers, which means that, in theory, they know perfectly well the answers to the insultingly pedantic and utterly irrelevant questions they’re asking. Wasting Sally Yates’ time and theirs like this instead of asking hard questions about Russia—again, the entire purpose of the hearing—was an appalling abdication of their duties. Their solemn commitment to “support and defend the Constitution,” it appears, extends only as far as their political party’s fortunes permit.
The Grand Jury Might Be Getting Closer
MORE STORIES LIKE THIS ONE