President Donald Trump, on just his 10th day in office, fired the acting attorney general for refusing to defend his contentious refugee order. Trump said Yates, a 27-year veteran of the department with respect across the aisle, had “betrayed” the Justice Department, even as top Democrats lodged howls of protest.
Trump decided to relieve Yates of duty after she informed Justice Department lawyers that she was “not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with these responsibilities.” In a statement sure to raise the ire of the White House, Yates also wrote in a letter to the lawyers that she was not sure “the executive order is lawful.”
She was referring to an executive order Trump signed Friday banning for 90 days citizens from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen. Syria, Iraq and Somalia were among the top five countries of origin for refugees entering the United States in 2016, according to the State Department.
The White House responded to Yates’ letter a few hours later with an extraordinarily harsh statement that reflects the Trump administration’s penchant for throwing rhetorical elbows and savaging its foes.
“The acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States,” in a statement released by the White House that the press pool was instructed to attribute to simply, the White House.
“Ms. Yates is an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration,” the White House added in a line that echoed much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric.
The words, phrases and slightly clipped structure resembled that used by both Trump and his press secretary and communications chief, Sean Spicer.
The Trump administration installed Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, as the new acting attorney general. He was sworn in around 9 p.m. He is expected to hold the post until Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is confirmed by the Senate and sworn in.
“I am honored to serve President Trump in this role until Sen. Sessions is confirmed,” Boente said, pledging to serve the president.
He did say he intends to “defend and enforce the laws of our country to ensure that our people and our nation are protected.”
Adding to the general confusion of the day, Trump also replaced the acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Daniel Ragsdale with another acting director, Thomas D. Homan.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. said in a statement that Yates’ dismissal “underscores how important it is to have an attorney general who will stand up to the White House when they are violating the law.”
“Many people have doubts about whether Jeff Sessions can be that person, and the full Senate and the American people should at the very least know exactly how independent he plans to be before voting on him,” Schumer said. “The attorney general should be loyal and pledge fidelity to the law, not the White House. The fact that this administration doesn’t understand that is chilling.”
House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer got in on the act, too, releasing a statement that said: “Tonight’s firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates represents an alarming step for an administration already raising serious questions about its competence to govern. Terminating the only Senate-confirmed official at the Department of Justice who can sign FISA warrants simply because the President disagrees with her interpretation of the law is reckless and shortsighted, and it makes our nation less safe.”
White House officials say Boente will have the authority to sign the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants Hoyer referred to, but it was unclear if he does indeed have the authority to do so.
Earlier Monday, Spicer said the executive orders had been reviewed by Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel — to what extent, however, remains unclear, a point made in the White House release blasting Yates.
Justice Department officials said earlier this week that the Office of Legal Counsel had reviewed Trump’s executive orders for the “narrow question” of whether “on its face lawful and properly drafted,” NPR and other media reported.
House Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers, Jr., D-Mich., called Trump’s move “Nixonian in its design and execution,” adding it “threatens the long-vaunted independence of the Justice Department.”
The reference to President Richard Nixon dovetails with what was being dubbed the “Monday Night Massacre,” itself a reference to the “Saturday Night Massacre,” that saw the firings of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus because they refused to fire Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox.
“If dedicated government officials deem his directives to be unlawful and unconstitutional, he will simply fire them as if government is a reality show,” Conyers said of Trump in a statement.
Some Republicans — even a one-time fierce Trump GOP primary opponent — defended the firing.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, used a Facebook post to state he believes “President Trump was exactly right to fire an acting attorney general who refused to carry out her constitutional duty to enforce and defend the law.”
“Yates’ lawless partisanship highlights why the Senate needs to act now — and Senate Democrats should end their extreme political obstruction and delay — and confirm Jeff Sessions immediately,” Cruz wrote.
Trump’s Friday order set off weekend protests in major cities and at airports where individuals from the seven Muslim-majority countries were attempting to enter the United States. The White House spent Monday both defending the order and lashing out at its foes, culminating in Yates’ firing. The situation is merely the latest eyebrow-raising moment for the former reality television star and businessman’s fledgling administration.
Spicer, from the White House Brady Room’s podium on Monday, warned State Department employees who have been going public with their disagreement with the refugee order, as the law and department tradition allows them to do, that they “should either get with the program or they should go.”
Yates refused to do so. And Trump decided she had to go.