In an extraordinary public showdown, US President Donald Trump fired the acting attorney general of the US after she publicly questioned the constitutionality of his refugee and immigration ban and refused to defend it in court.
The clash on Monday night between Trump and Sally Yates, a career prosecutor and Democratic appointee, laid bare the growing discord and dissent surrounding an executive order that halted the entire US refugee program and banned all entries from seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days.
The firing, in a written statement released just hours after Yates went public with her concerns, also served as a warning to other administration officials that Trump is prepared to terminate those who refuse to carry out his orders.
Yates’ refusal to defend the executive order was largely symbolic given that US Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, will almost certainly defend the policy once he is sworn in.
He was expected to be confirmed yesterday by the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary and could be approved within days by the full Senate.
Yet the firing reflected the mounting conflict over the executive order, as administration officials have moved to distance themselves from the policy and even some of Trump’s top advisers have made clear that they were not consulted on its implementation.
As protests erupted at airports across the globe, and as legal challenges piled up in courthouses, Yates directed agency attorneys not to defend the executive order.
She said in a memo on Monday 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 named long-time federal prosecutor Dana Boente, the US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, as Yates’ replacement.
Boente was sworn in privately late on Monday, the White House said, and rescinded Yates’s directive.
The chain of events bore echoes of then-US president Richard Nixon’s “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, a holdover from former US president Barack Obama’s administration, was not alone in her misgivings.
At least three top US national security officials — Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and Rex Tillerson, who is awaiting confirmation as secretary of state — 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 US officials.
Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said that despite White House assurances that congressional leaders were consulted, he learned about the order from the media.
Yates on Monday said that she had reviewed the policy and concluded that it was at odds with the Justice Department’s mission.
She said that although other lawyers in the department had reviewed the order, their review had not addressed whether it was “wise or just.”
Trump said the order had been “approved” by Justice Department lawyers, but the department has said the Office of Legal Counsel review was limited to whether the order was properly drafted, and did not address policy questions.
Homeland Security 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 US and coalition forces from the 90-day ban on entry from the predominantly Muslim countries.
At least one prominent Republican lawmaker, Senator Marco Rubio, was told that the State Department had been instructed not to communicate with Congress.
“My staff was told the State Department as of today was ordered not to talk to Congress about this issue,” Rubio said. “That cannot be a permanent position, we expect answers here fairly soon."
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