President Donald Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates as conflict escalated over his executive order banning entry to the U.S. by citizens of seven predominantly Muslim nations.
Yates, an Obama administration holdover, was ousted Monday just hours after she told Justice Department staff not to defend the ban in court because she didn’t think it was legal. A White House statement said she was removed for “refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.”
Trump quickly named another Obama appointee to the post, Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who instructed the department’s lawyers to defend the immigration ban against legal challenges. Boente would stay until Trump’s choice for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is confirmed by the Senate -- though Democrats are vowing a vicious fight to block the nomination.
The ouster of Yates intensified the drama and confusion that has been building since Trump issued the ban on Friday. It caps three days in which incoming international travelers were temporarily detained, protests sprung up around airports and many congressional Republicans criticized the White House over the order. Former President Barack Obama broke with tradition by entering a dispute with his successor by publicly backing the demonstrations.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama, 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 ouster of a sitting attorney general -- albeit an Obama administration holdover who would have left the job upon Sessions’s confirmation -- inevitably echoes a dark moment in American history: the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre, when President Richard Nixon dismissed a special prosecutor probing the Watergate scandal, prompting the resignations of the Justice Department’s top two officials.
“For as long as I am the acting Attorney General, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense 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 Monday evening that Yates’s statement was “a further demonstration of how politicized 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 U.S. or visa holders, and suspended refugee immigration programs.
Legal challenges to the executive order have been mounted across the country already, with civil liberties groups saying they will work to have the entire action overturned by the courts. The Justice Department would be tasked with defending the order in court, a mission that Boente pledged to carry out as he rescinded Yate’s policy statement late Monday night.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer defended the ban at a press briefing Monday, saying no one should be surprised since the idea was a key theme of Trump’s presidential campaign.
But the immigration action provoked unease stretching from foreign capitals to corporate suites, as people who hoped Trump might moderate some of his more far-reaching campaign promises are finding he’s carrying them out just as he said he would.
Controversy also erupted at the State Department last week, where several veteran career officials stepped down as Trump moves to put his stamp on U.S. foreign policy. Other foreign service officers then began circulating a draft of a so-called dissent memo criticizing Trump’s immigration executive order after it was issued on Friday.
Boente was sworn in about 9 p.m., shortly before the firing was announced, said White House spokesman Michael Short.
“I am honored 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."
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly is planning to head to Capitol Hill Tuesday to meet privately with top House and Senate leaders, including Republicans and Democrats from key committees, according to two congressional aides. The exact timing for the meeting is still uncertain, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Speaker Paul Ryan were among those trying to make time to attend, according to aides.
Others invited to attend are Schumer and the top two Democrats in the House, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, as well as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Some committee chairmen and ranking Democrats, including those on the Homeland Security, Judiciary, Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Appropriations panels, are also invited.
A Republican congressional aide said the House Homeland Security Committee wasn’t consulted on the executive order, and an aide to a Republican House Judiciary Committee member said he wasn’t aware of any committee members or staffers being consulted. On Sunday, a senior leadership aide said congressional leaders had no role in drafting the order.
The administration said the executive order had been carefully crafted and well implemented. Trump, in a tweet, said Kelly “said that all is going well with very few problems.”
But there were many reports of immigrants denied entry at U.S. airports or stuck at airports overseas, and advocacy groups alleged that customs agents were defying court orders to let people into the country.
“They understand that this was not handled in the most productive manner,” Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who’s chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters. Corker said he wasn’t briefed before the order landed, and said he hopes there’s more communication and an inter-agency process next time for something thus far-reaching.
“My guess is they’re going to try to clean it up,” Corker said.
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 scrutinized,” the New Jersey Republican said in a statement. “Congress has important oversight responsibilities over all executive orders, which we intend to exercise.”