President Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates Monday night after the Obama holdover refused to defend his controversial refugee ban in court.
The ouster came just hours after Sally Yates said she would not defend in court the president’s executive order suspending immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries.
“Ms. Sally Yates is an Obama administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration,” said a statement from the White House that appeared to be in Trump’s own voice.
Yates, a holdover from the Obama Administration, was replaced by Dana Boente, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Boente, 62, was sworn in Monday evening. He will lead the Justice Department pending the confirmation of Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, by the Senate.
A White House statement said Sally Yates had “betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.” The executive order, which Trump signed Friday, temporarily halted the entire U.S. refugee program and banned all entries from seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days.
Trump appointed Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to serve as acting attorney general until his nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions, can be confirmed by the Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a Tuesday vote on Sessions, who has closely advised Trump on immigration matters.
Boente was immediately sworn in at 9 p.m. Monday. “I will defend and enforce the laws of our country to ensure that our people and our nation are protected,” Boente said in a statement issued through the White House.
The stunning series of events that rolled late into Monday evening drew immediate comparisons to the so-called Saturday Night Massacre of 1973, when then Attorney General Elliot Richardson chose to resign rather than obey President Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Yates was deputy attorney general under President Obama and has been serving as acting acting attorney general since Loretta Lynch resigned on Inauguration Day. She had refused to defend his executive order, which has been challenged in court by civil liberties groups who argue it discriminates on the basis of religion.
“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,” said Yates in a letter to Justice Department attorneys. “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.
“Consequently, 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,” wrote Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration.
Trump responded to Sally Yates via Twitter, characterizing the action as a “political” move to block his agenda.
“Democrats are delaying my cabinet picks for purely political reasons,” Trump tweeted. “They have nothing going but to obstruct. Now have an Obama A.G.”
Senate Democrats have objected to Sessions’ nomination, and Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday on CNN that Sessions should have to disclose his opinion of Trump’s immigration order before the Senate votes on his nomination.
Trump advisor Stephen Miller told News Channels Monday that Yates’ decision is “a further demonstration of how politicized our legal system has become,” so much so that “you have people refusing to enforce our laws.” Miller said the president clearly has the legal authority to bar people from entry into the country for national security reasons.
But former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder tweeted late Monday that Yates’ “judgement should be trusted.”
Trump’s executive order had been reviewed and approved by the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel before it was issued Friday — a point that White House press secretary Sean Spicer was quick to point out Monday night.
But Yates said the OLC’s role was only to address the form of the order and whether it’s is properly drafted. It “did not address whether any policy choice embodied in an executive order is wise or just,” Yates wrote. “My responsibility is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible, but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts.”
The executive order contains an exception for religious minorities from the banned countries, which are Iraq, Iran, Syria. Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya. Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network in an interview that aired Sunday that the intent was to protect Christian refugees.
Yates’ order followed a chaotic weekend where lawyers flooded courtrooms around the country to try and halt the deportation of people who had arrived after Trump signed his executive order. A federal judge in New York issued an emergency, nationwide stay late Saturday barring the federal government from any more deportations.
Immigration advocacy groups have started filing broader lawsuits challenging the overall legality of Trump’s order.
A group of Michigan immigrants filed a suit in federal court in Virginia on Monday challenging the order on religious grounds. That suit claims Trump’s order discriminates against Muslims and violates constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion.
A separate lawsuit filed in federal court in Seattle on Monday claims that Trump’s order violates a federal law that prohibits discrimination against immigrants based on their country of origin. That lawsuit was filed on behalf of U.S.-based parents trying to reunite with their children in Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and one of the attorneys in the suit, acknowledged that a president had broad powers to oversee the nation’s immigration system. Federal law allows a president to bar entry to any immigrant, or entire classes of immigrants, if the president deems them “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”
But the lawsuit claims that Trump overstepped his legal authority by temporarily suspending all immigration from seven entire countries. It points to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which forbids discrimination based on a person’s nationality or country of origin.
“While the president has certain powers, he doesn’t have power to defy this clause,” Adams said.
Democrats in Congress have offered legislation to overturn Trump’s order, but they have not gathered any Republican support. Democrats staged a protest on the steps of the Supreme Court Monday evening to rail against the executive order.
Replacing Sally Yates is Boente, who has served in various positions inside the Justice Department over more than 30 years, beginning in the Tax Division.
In 2001, he served as the assistand U.S. attorney in the fraud unit in the Eastern District of Virginia. In December 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder appointed him to serve as the chief federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Louisiana. He held that position until September 2013, and Obama nominated him to be U.S. Attorney in Alexandria, Va. in 2015.