You could say Steve Yates’ life was pretty interesting even before he moved to Idaho—before he became chair of the state Republican party, and before his bit role in Donald Trump’s controversial phone call with the leader of Taiwan earlier this month that upended U.S. diplomatic protocol.
At 19, he left his home in Maryland for a two-year Mormon mission in Taiwan, where he became fluent in Chinese and connected with up-and-comers who now lead what is known officially as the Republic of China.
Back in U.S., his language fluency caught the attention of an LDS church member who worked at the National Security Agency. Yates enrolled in an NSA-sponsored work-study program, which led to assignments as an analyst at the Heritage Foundation and later as a deputy national security adviser in the White House at age 32.
I am flattered that people find me qualified for those kinds of offices, but they seem to be occupied for the time being.
Steve Yates on running for office in Idaho
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In the aftermath of 9/11, he would often sit in for his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, at national security meetings.
“It was a huge honor,” he recalls, with wry humor. “You’re in a room and here’s George W. Bush, here’s (Chief of Staff) Andy Card, Condi Rice and Colin Powell — and Steve Yates.”
Given that, one could imagine his selection in 2014 to lead the Idaho state Republican party might seem anti-climactic. To him, it was just the latest chapter in a life marked by devotion to public service, faith and family, and conservative causes.
Yates is not interested in an administration job, but is helping the new administration find candidates for some of the 4,000 executive branch jobs Trump will fill. Nor is another run for elected office in his immediate plans.
The eldest of five, Yates, now 48, was born into a Roman Catholic home — his parents converted to the Mormon faith after a visit from an LDS missionary when he was 3. Living in Gaithersburg, Md., his father, Jerry, was a car mechanic with congenitally bad ankles who stood in pain all day for work. He would not let his son work on cars.
“He was an amazing example to me of perseverance and hard work,” Yates said. His father told him: “You’d better work those books.”
You can’t work this hard. You’d better work those books.
Advice from Yates’ car-mechanic father
Growing up Mormon in Maryland, he occasionally met visitors or transplants from Idaho. When Yates arrived to attend Brigham Young University in Provo, he ran smack into one of those old Idaho friends in his dorm. He spent Thanksgiving that year with his friend in Idaho Falls — his first visit to the state.
At BYU, though he had proved inept at learning Spanish, he signed up for a Japanese language class until a friend encouraged him to take Chinese instead. After one year at BYU, he left for his mission in Taiwan. It was 1987, the year President Chiang Ching-kuo ended 38 years of martial law, legalizing opposition parties and initiating a gradual liberalizing in the country.
Based in southern Taiwan, Yates did a lot of listening, especially among the recently legalized dissident groups. On a return visit a decade later, he would meet a lawyer and educator, Tsai Ing-wen, who was elected president earlier this year.
Yates returned to the U.S. in 1989. His Chinese fluency led to an offer to work as a language analyst while attending school.
In 1990 he married Diana Kilbourn, whom he’d met on her mission in D.C., and started working for the NSA while finishing his degree in China studies at the University of Maryland. He graduated in 1993 and applied to the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, but deferred admission while he figured out how to pay for it.
Working full-time for the NSA, he served as a liaison officer to the Department of Commerce. Yates liked working in downtown Washington and saw a career in politics and policy-making, not intelligence and analysis. His aspiration was to work for the Heritage Foundation, the renowned conservative think tank.
It might have seemed an unusual job pick for someone raised in a family of Kennedy Democrats. But Yates had come of age amid the Reagan revolution and the collapse of communism. He registered as a Republican and became a conservative activist.
“The whole world was changing before our eyes in the 1989-91 years, and to me looked like a total vindication of the Reagan doctrine of the 1980s,” he said. He returned from overseas “with a special appreciation for all that is our country and a strong belief in American exceptionalism.” Listening to a new national radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, he strongly identified with the conservative movement.
At Johns Hopkins, he regularly attended open office hours with the school’s dean, Paul Wolfowitz, an assistant secretary of state under the first President Bush. After school, he got on at the Heritage Foundation, starting as a China policy analyst in 1996.
“Steve quickly became a valued member of the Heritage family,” Ed Feulner, a foundation co-founder and former president who is now a member of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team, said by email. He called Yates “a grassroots leader of sensible Americans.”
In early 2001, his connections with Wolfowitz prompted a phone call from the vice president’s office. Yates met with staffers and, a week later, with Cheney. Before Yates realized he was actually interviewing for a job, the vice president welcomed him on board.
Yates reported to Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Now senior vice president at the Hudson Institute, another conservative Washington think tank, Libby said via email that Yates served “with distinction during trying times” and “never lost his strong sense of honor and of duty.”
Yates left the White house in 2005, two weeks before Libby’s turn of fortunes — he resigned after his indictment related to the leak of a covert CIA agent’s identity. (Libby was later convicted, but his prison sentence was commuted by the president.) After the intense stress of the White House years and 9/11, he was worn out and a stranger to his family. He and his wife had two adopted children, and his eldest, Christina, then 7, had taken to introducing him as “my dad, who lives at his office.”
He started his own Asian policy and consulting firm and made the rounds as a commentator on Fox News. A self-employed consultant, he could work anywhere. So, with extended family in Utah and Idaho, he moved to Idaho Falls in 2011.
POLITICS IN IDAHO
He remained involved. In 2012, he advised Newt Gingrich in his presidential run, as he had for Rudy Giuliani in 2008. He made the rounds in Idaho political circles and lost a GOP primary race for the state House in 2014. Idaho Republicans at the time were riven by internal division. At a stormy convention that year, Yates, a newcomer with unassailable conservative credentials, got elected state GOP chairman.
He put himself forward as someone “committed to conservatism as an ideology and committed to the party,” he said.
Yates believes the party should train and equip people, promote its platform and get its candidates elected. His work for the GOP, he said, has turned out to be “more rewarding than writing talking points for national candidates.” He was re-elected in June, and Idaho Republicans in November ousted incumbent Democrats in Lewiston and Moscow, held on to an increasingly rare all-Republican Boise legislative district and boosted their numbers in the Idaho House and the Senate.
TAIWAN TIES RESURFACE
With his White House experience and Asia expertise, Yates has informally advised the Trump transition. When discussion of Trump accepting a congratulatory call from the Taiwanese leader came up — a move that could potentially infuriate Beijing and roil diplomatic relations — Yates encouraged it. He’s long been critical of official U.S. policy that acknowledges Beijing as the seat of Chinese government, but maintains strong economic and back-door diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
His role in the call initially was reported to be more extensive than it actually was. “Every once in a while,” he said, “it all seems to come back to Taiwan no matter what I do.”
He’s not interested in an administration job, but is helping the new administration find candidates for some of the 4,000 executive branch jobs Trump will fill. Nor is another run for elected office in his immediate plans.
He displays his penchant for slightly subversive, self-mocking humor when he mentions the “rumors that have followed me from the moment I set foot in Idaho that I had some kind of a secret plan to run for high office here.”
“I am flattered that people find me qualified for those kinds of offices, but they seem to be occupied for the time being,” Yates said. “I can’t know what the future holds — it could be in two years’ time no one cares what I think.... Having been a party chairman for over two years is a fine way to impoverish someone and make it impossible for them to run for office.”
COMING SUNDAY: In recent weeks, two of Idaho’s top political party leaders have been thrust onto the nation stage. On Sunday, we profile Idaho Democratic Party Director Sally Boynton Brown, who is running to be the national chairman of the Democratic Party.