WASHINGTON — Accusing her of betrayal and insubordination, President Donald Trump on Monday fired Sally Yates, the acting attorney general of the United States and a Democratic appointee, after she publicly questioned the constitutionality of his controversial refugee and immigration ban and refused to defend it in court.
The dramatic public clash between the new president and the nation’s top law enforcement officer laid bare the growing discord and dissent surrounding Trump’s executive order, which temporarily halted the entire U.S. refugee program and banned all entries from seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days.
The firing came hours after Yates directed Justice Department attorneys not to defend the executive order, saying she was not convinced it was lawful or consistent with the agency’s obligation “to stand for what is right.” Trump soon followed with a statement accusing Yates of having “betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.”
He immediately named longtime federal prosecutor Dana Boente, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, as Yates’ replacement.
Boente was sworn in privately late Monday, the White House said. He promptly order Justice Department lawyers to “do our sworn duty and to defend the lawful orders of our President.”
Boente said Trump’s executive order was “both lawful on its face and properly drafted.”
Yates’ refusal to defend the executive order was largely symbolic given that Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, will almost certainly defend the policy once he’s sworn in. He’s expected to be confirmed Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee and could be approved within days by the full Senate.
The chain of events bore echoes of the Nixon-era “Saturday Night Massacre,” when the attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned rather than follow an order to fire a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal. The prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was fired by the solicitor general.
Yates’s abrupt decision reflected the growing conflict over the executive order, with administration officials moving Monday to distance themselves from the policy. As protests erupted at airports over the weekend and confusion disrupted travel around the globe, even some of Trump’s top advisers and fellow Republicans made clear they were not involved in crafting the policy or consulted on its implementation.
At least three top national security officials — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Rex Tillerson, who is awaiting confirmation to lead the State Department — have told associates they were not aware of details of the directive until around the time Trump signed it. Leading intelligence officials were also left largely in the dark, according to U.S. officials.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said that despite White House assurances that congressional leaders were consulted, he learned about the order in the media.
Trump’s order pauses America’s entire refugee program for four months, indefinitely bans all those from war-ravaged Syria and temporarily freezes immigration from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Federal judges in New York and several other states issued orders that temporarily block the government from deporting people with valid visas who arrived after Trump’s travel ban took effect and found themselves in limbo.
Yates, who was appointed deputy attorney general in 2015 and was the No. 2 Justice Department official under Loretta Lynch, declared Monday she was instructing department lawyers not to defend the order in court.
“I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right,” Yates wrote in a letter announcing her position. “At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the Executive Order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is lawful.”
Trump said the order had been “approved” by Justice Department lawyers. However, the department has said the Office of Legal Counsel review was limited to whether the order was properly drafted, but did not address broader policy questions.
Other parts of Trump’s administration also voiced dissent Monday. A large group of American diplomats circulated a memo voicing their opposition to the order, which temporarily halted the entire U.S. refugee program and banned all entries from seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days. White House spokesman Sean Spicer challenged those opposed to the measure to resign.
“They should either get with the program or they can go,” Spicer said.
The blowback underscored Trump’s tenuous relationship with his own national security advisers, many of whom he met for the first time during the transition.
Mattis, who stood next to Trump during Friday’s signing ceremony, is said to be particularly incensed. A senior U.S. official said Mattis, along with Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford, was aware of the general concept of Trump’s order but not the details. Tillerson has told the president’s political advisers that he was baffled over not being consulted on the substance of the order.
U.S. officials and others with knowledge of the Cabinet’s thinking insisted on anonymity in order to disclose the officials’ private views.
Despite his public defense of the policy, the president has privately acknowledged flaws in the rollout, according to a person with knowledge of his thinking. But he’s also blamed the media — his frequent target — for what he believes are reports exaggerating the dissent and the number of people actually affected.
After a chaotic weekend during which some U.S. legal permanent residents were detained at airports, some agencies were moving swiftly to try to clean up after the White House.
Homeland Security, the agency tasked with implementing much of the refugee ban, clarified that customs and border agents should allow legal residents to enter the country. The Pentagon was trying to exempt Iraqis who worked alongside the U.S. and coalition forces from the 90-day ban on entry from the predominantly Muslim countries.
“There are a number of people in Iraq who have worked for us in a partnership role, whether fighting alongside us or working as translators, often doing so at great peril to themselves,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers in Trump’s party sought to distance themselves from the wide-ranging order.
While Spicer said “appropriate committees and leadership offices” on Capitol Hill were consulted, GOP lawmakers said their offices had no hand in drafting the order and no briefings from the White House on how it would work.
“I think they know that it could have been done in a better way,” Corker said of the White House.
AP writers Matthew Lee, Lolita C. Baldor, Erica Werner, Jonathan Lemire and Vivian Salama contributed to this report.
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