Donald Trump sacks acting attorney general Sally Yates over refusal to enforce immigration order

Sally Yates, who is now the acting attorney general, speaks during a news conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, on June 28, 2016.
Sally Yates, who is now the acting attorney general, speaks during a news conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, on June 28, 2016. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - President Donald Trump fired acting attorney general Sally Yates on Monday night (Jan 30) after she ordered Justice Department lawyers not to defend his immigration order temporarily banning entry into the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from around the world.

In a news release, the White House said Ms Yates had “betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.” 

Mr Trump named in her place Mr Dana Boente, the US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Mr Boente said he would enforce the president’s directive until he was replaced by Mr Trump’s attorney general nominee, Senator Jeff Sessions. “Yes, I will,” he said in a brief phone interview with The Washington Post. “I was enforcing it this afternoon. Our career department employees were defending the action in court, and I expect that’s what they’ll do tomorrow, appropriately and properly.”

Later on Monday, he formally rescinded Ms Yates’ order and instructed Justice Department employees “to do our sworn duty and to defend the lawful orders of our President.” 

The move came just hours after Ms Yates ordered the Justice Department not to defend Mr Trump’s immigration order, declaring in a memo that she was not convinced the order is lawful. 

She wrote that as the leader of the Justice Department, she must ensure that the department’s position is “legally defensible” and “consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.”

“At present, I am not convinced that the defence of the Executive Order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is lawful,”  she  wrote. She said that “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.” 

The stunning events marked the latest sign of turmoil over Mr Trump’s announcement on Friday that he would shut the US borders to refugees and those entering the country from seven Muslim-majority countries.

More than 100 State Department diplomats have signed a memo objecting to Mr Trump’s order, arguing that it will not deter attacks on American soil. The document, which says Mr Trump’s ban will generate ill will toward US citizens, is destined for what’s known as the department’s Dissent Channel, which was set up during the Vietnam War as a way for diplomats to signal to senior leadership their disagreement on foreign policy decisions.

Ms Yates was a holdover from the Obama administration, but her move still represented notable disagreement from someone who would be on the front lines of implementing it.

A Justice Department official said that hours after Ms Yates released her memo refusing to defend the president’s executive order, she was delivered a one-line letter from the head of the White House Office of Presidential Personnel saying that she had been removed. The White House then announced her firing with a statement criticising her as “an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”

“It is time to get serious about protecting our country,” the statement said. “Calling for tougher vetting for individuals travelling from seven dangerous places is not extreme. It is reasonable and necessary to protect our country.” 

Mr Sessions, Mr Trump’s pick to lead the Justice Department permanently, is awaiting Senate confirmation, although it could come as early as this week. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider his nomination on Tuesday, and the entire Senate must wait one day before voting. A spokesman for Mr Sessions declined to comment.

Mr Boente, who was sworn in at 9 p.m., said he would serve until Mr Sessions is confirmed, which he understood from news reports might happen by week’s end. He declined to say when or by whom he was approached to take over as acting attorney general, and he also declined to discuss the specifics of  Ms Yates’s memo.

Mr Boente is a long-time federal prosecutor who has a remarkably low-key demeanor, although he has supervised high-profile investigations and prosecutions. Assistant US attorneys from his office were involved in the probe of Mrs Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, and they won the criminal convictions – which were later vacated – against former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell,

Mr Boente also led the prosecutions of former US representative William Jefferson,  and former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin. At his swearing-in ceremony as US attorney, then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch called him “that reliable middle child, the one you could always count on to be there for you.” 

Mr Boente would not have been first in the line of succession ordered by  Mr Obama, who had placed US attorneys in the District of Columbia, Chicago and Los Angeles ahead.

Ms Yates’s refusal to defend to Mr Trump’s immigration order – and her firing over it – capped a day in which resistance to the ban fomented inside the government and across the country.

Civil rights lawyers and others across the country increased the pressure on Mr Trump on Monday to dial back the ban – filing legal challenges to the executive order as they worked to determine whether people were still being improperly denied entry or detained.

Mr Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, who worked on one of the legal challenges, said of Ms Yates’s memo: “It sends a very strong message that there’s something very wrong with the Muslim ban.” 

Earlier in the day, former president Barack Obama also weighed in on the executive action through a spokesman, seeming to back those demonstrating against Mr Trump’s decree and declaring his opposition to “discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion.” 

Mr Obama said that he was “heartened by the level of engagement taking place in communities around the country” - an apparent reference to protests at airports nationwide. He also disputed Mr Trump’s claim that his ban was based on Obama administration decisions.

A Justice Department official familiar with the matter said Ms Yates felt that she was in an “impossible situation” and had been struggling with what to do about a measure she did not consider lawful. A Justice Department official confirmed over the weekend that the department’s Office of Legal Counsel had been asked to review the measure to determine whether it was “on its face lawful and properly drafted.” 

In her memo, though, Ms Yates said her role was broader. She wrote that an Office of Legal Counsel review does “not address whether any policy choice embodied in an Executive Order is wise or just,” nor does it “take account of statements made by an administration or its surrogates close in time to the issuance of an Executive Order that may bear on the order’s purpose.” 

That could be a reference to Mr Trump’s campaign trail comments about a “Muslim ban” or the recent assertion by Trump surrogate Rudolph Giuliani that the president had asked him “the right way to do it legally.”  

 

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Democrats criticised Ms Yates’s firing as an unfair termination of someone who was following the law. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosisaid, “What the Trump administration calls betrayal is an American with the courage to say that the law and the Constitution come first.” 

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said the termination “underscores how important it is to have an attorney general who will stand up to the White House when they are violating the law,” and said many have doubts about Sessions.

Others, though, turned their ire on Ms Yates.“It can’t be stated strongly enough how reckless, irresponsible and improper the behaviour was of the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, in refusing to defend the president’s order,” senior policy adviser Stephen Miller told Fox News.

He  accused Ms ates of “refusing to defend the lawful powers of the president.” He also said he had no doubt about the order’s legality.