Trump fires acting US attorney general after she orders lawyers not to defend president’s immigration bans
It was another dramatic twist in the unusually raucous roll-out of Trump’s directive that put a 120-day hold on allowing refugees into the country
US President Donald Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates on Monday after she refused to uphold his executive order banning entry into the US by citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries and questioned the measure’s legality.
Yates, an Obama administration holdover, was ousted hours after she told Justice Department staff that Trump’s directive was inconsistent with the agency’s “solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.”
The White House responded with a statement hours later that clearly reflected Trump’s anger. Using a word Trump has employed frequently to insult his opponents, the statement called Yates “weak on borders and very weak on immigration.”
“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,” the statement said.
The Trump administration named Dana Boente, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to replace Yates as acting attorney general, according to the statement. Also an Obama appointee, Boente’s office handled prosecutions including the corruption case against former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, a Republican whose conviction was thrown out last year.
The dismissal will raise pressure on Republicans to expedite Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Yates had been expected to stay on until Sessions was confirmed. But the firing will also embolden Democrats seeking to delay that process.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sessions should be required to address questions about his independence from the White House before being voted on, as Democratic concerns over his nomination intensified in the aftermath of Yates’s firing.
“The attorney general should be loyal and pledge fidelity to the law, not the White House,” Schumer said in a statement. “The fact that this administration doesn’t understand that is chilling.”
The unusual public defiance by Yates, who would have left the Justice Department upon Sessions’s confirmation, was the latest twist in a controversy that has sparked protests at airports across the country and seen many congressional Republicans break from the White House over Trump’s move to ban travel by people from seven Muslim-majority nations. Her statement lent the authority of her office to several legal challenges under way against the order across the country.
“For as long as I am the acting attorney general, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defence of the executive order, unless and until I become convinced that it is appropriate to do so,” Yates said in her statement, released hours before she was fired.
Stephen Miller, a White House senior adviser who helped write the Trump administration order, said on MSNBC that Yates’s statement was “a further demonstration of how politicised our legal system has become.” He said the president has “the absolute right” under immigration law to exclude any class of visitors from entering the country.
“The president has that authority,” Miller said.
“It’s been delegated by Congress.”
Trump’s order temporarily barred entry for people from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya, tripping up people who were already legal residents of the US or visa holders, and suspended refugee immigration programmes.
Controversy also erupted at the State Department last week, where several veteran career officials stepped down as Trump moves to put his stamp on US foreign policy. Other foreign service officers then began circulating a draft of a so-called dissent memo criticising Trump’s immigration executive order after it was issued on Friday.
Boente was sworn in about 9pm, shortly before the firing was announced, said White House spokesman Michael Short.
“I am honoured to serve President Trump in this role until Senator Sessions is confirmed,“ Boente said in a statement released by the White House.
“I will defend and enforce the laws of our country to ensure that our people and our nation are protected.“
In a separate late-night move announced without explanation by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Trump also replaced acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement director Daniel Ragsdale.
Two dismissals in one night held uncomfortable echoes of President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday night massacre” during the Watergate scandal.
Then, Nixon fired the special prosecutor investigating him, prompting the departures of his attorney general and deputy attorney general.
The events catalysed Nixon’s impeachment.
The drama at the Justice Department is another sign of how hastily Trump’s immigration order was developed and how little it was reviewed by the agencies now grappling to implement it.
The White House said key government officials were briefed before Trump signed the order on Friday, but there was little coordination or consultation, resulting in confusion. Most State Department officials found out about it from media reports.
Officials from the State Department circulated a draft memo of dissent on Monday, saying Trump’s move would hurt America’s image abroad and inflame anti-American sentiment.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer dismissed the memo.
“These career bureaucrats have a problem with it? I think that they should either get with the programme or they can go,” he told reporters at his daily briefing.
An internal Department of Homeland Security document seen by Reuters showed 348 visa holders were kept from boarding US-bound flights this week, and more than 200 people came to the United States but were denied entry.
More than 735 people were pulled aside for questioning by US Customs and Border Protection officers at airports, including 394 green card holders, who are legal permanent residents of the United States, the document said.
Trump’s administration is granting waivers from the refugee ban to allow 872 people into the country this week - refugees that had already been cleared for resettlement in the United States and were in transit when the order came out.
Tens of thousands of people protested Trump’s order in major American cities and at airports on the weekend.
Obama took the rare step of weighing in, saying through a spokesman that he was heartened by the political activism on the issue.
Representative Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican, called for the order to be pulled back.
“This was overly broad, overly rushed and implemented in a haphazard manner,” he said.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who ran against Trump for the Republican nomination, said he had been trying to get more information about the orders but that State Department officials told his staff that they had been ordered not to talk to Congress.
“There is no doubt” that multiple committees will be asking administration officials to explain the policy, he said.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, whose control over all legislation spending federal money makes him a key figure in Congress, warned of a potential investigation of the disruption in enacting the order.
“This weekend’s confusion is an indication that the details of this executive order were not properly scrutinised,” the New Jersey Republican said in a statement.
“Congress has important oversight responsibilities over all executive orders, which we intend to exercise.”
Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press