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Story highlights

Yates spent a long career in the Justice Department

She was fired Monday after refusing to defend Trump's executive order on immigration

(CNN) —  

President Donald Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates in January after she refused to defend his immigration order and touched off a major drama in the opening days of his presidency.

“The acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement.

But the former Justice Department official re-entered the news cycle Monday after a White House official confirmed that Yates warned the Trump administration last month that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn misled administration officials regarding his communications with Russia before entering the White House.

Intelligence agencies said Flynn had spoken to the Russian ambassador to the United States about sanctions imposed by former President Barack Obama and was potentially vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians, a person familiar with the matter told CNN.

Other top intelligence officials, including James Clapper and John Brennan, were in agreement with Yates that the White House should be alerted about the concerns.

Flynn, who was not in government at the time of the talks, resigned his position Monday shortly after the reports emerged.

Last month, Yates was thrust into a standoff with the new president and into the national spotlight. Appointed by Obama, Yates had been running Trump’s Justice Department until his attorney general nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions, is confirmed. Before that, she had spent years defending Obama administration policies, championing changes to the criminal justice system and curtailing the federal government’s use of private prisons.

Trump fires acting AG after she declines to defend travel ban

Yates previously told Justice Department lawyers not to make legal arguments defending Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees, launching herself into the biggest controversy of the opening days of Trump’s presidency.

“My responsibility is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible, but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts,” Yates said in a letter to department lawyers.

Hours later, she was gone, a dramatic end to her lengthy career in the department.

Georgia roots

Born in Atlanta in 1960, Yates attended the University of Georgia both as an undergrad and a law student – becoming what the home of the Bulldogs calls a “double dawg.”

Three years after graduating from UGA, she began her career that has spanned almost three decades within the Justice Department, according to her DOJ biography page.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates speaks during a press conference at the Department of Justice on June 28, 2016 in Washington, DC.
PHOTO: Pete Marovich/Getty Images
Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates speaks during a press conference at the Department of Justice on June 28, 2016 in Washington, DC.

Yates started at the end of the 1980s, working as assistant US attorney in the Northern District of Georgia. She worked her way up in a series of cases the DOJ described as including white-collar fraud and political corruption.

In 1996, Yates aided with the prosecution of Eric Rudolph, who pleaded guilty to bombing Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta during the Olympic ceremonies.

In 2010, Obama appointed her to run the local US attorney’s office, the first time a woman had reached the position there.

She subsequently climbed the DOJ ladder almost to the very top. When former Attorney General Eric Holder informed Obama of his intention to leave the office, Obama tapped Loretta Lynch for attorney general and Yates for deputy.

Unlike Lynch, who faced a divided Senate for confirmation, Yates made it through her Senate grilling with wide, bipartisan support. Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue – both Republicans – spoke on her behalf.

She did face some pushback from conservative corners, however. Sessions, an Alabama Republican, was among those to question her sharply during her Judiciary Committee hearing, and he ultimately voted against her confirmation.

That final step points to the current irony facing Washington: The Trump administration asked Yates to stay on as attorney general after the inauguration until Sessions, Trump’s nominee, could take over.

Yates accepted the request, and that meant Trump would have someone leading DOJ who is well outside of his ideological mold.

The current clash was set up by Trump’s decision to move ahead with the immigration executive order – suspending the refugee program and temporarily halting travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries – before Sessions was installed.

The day after Trump’s order came down, a federal judge blocked part of the order. More legal challenges mounted, and Yates instructed the department not to defend the administration from them.

Monday night, she was hand-delivered a letter from the White House that ended her Justice Department career.