Donald Trump has fired the acting US attorney general after she told justice department lawyers not to defend his executive order banning entry for people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
The White House said on Monday that Sally Yates had “betrayed” the department by refusing to enforce a legal order that was “designed to protect the citizens of the United States”.
Trump drafted in Dana Boente, US attorney for the eastern district of Virginia, to replace Yates as acting attorney general. The president’s official appointee, anti-immigration hardliner Senator Jeff Sessions, is yet to be confirmed by the Senate.
As the country’s top law enforcement official, Yates, who was appointed by Barack Obama, had control over the justice department’s immigration litigation office, which has handled the federal complaints filed against Trump’s order since his bombshell policy was announced on Friday.
“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,” Yates wrote in a letter to justice department lawyers. “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.”The action earned praise from immigration activists and Democrats but within three hours Yates was gone.
A statement from the White House press secretary’s office said: “Ms Yates is 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. Calling for tougher vetting for individuals travelling from seven dangerous places is not extreme. It is reasonable and necessary to protect our country.”
Trump had “relieved Ms Yates of her duties” and Boente would take over until Sessions’s confirmation by the Senate “where he is being wrongly held up by Democrat senators for strictly political reasons”.
Sessions, a longtime Trump ally, has drawn vocal opposition from liberal groups.
The White House statement quoted Boente as saying: “I am honored to serve President Trump in this role until Senator Sessions is confirmed. I will defend and enforce the laws of our country to ensure that our people and our nation are protected.”
The president’s swift action was praised by his supporters. Newt Gingrich drew parallels with reality TV show The Apprentice. “Trump practiced ‘you’re fired’ for years,” the former House Speaker tweeted. “Today he applied it to an insubordinate acting [attorney] general. Congratulations.”Democrats condemned the dismissal. Zac Petkanas, a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee, said: “Donald Trump can try to silence heroic patriots like Sally Yates who dare to speak truth to power about his illegal anti-Muslim ban that emboldens terrorists around the globe. But he cannot silence the growing voices of an American people now wide awake to his tyrannical presidency.”
Analysts compared the firing to the 1973 “Saturday night massacre” when Richard Nixon sacked the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox, prompting the resignation of Elliot Richardson as attorney general.
Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University, told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show: “I think it’s historic. It certainly reminded me immediately of the Saturday night massacre. There are many differences but one is how quickly this has happened in the Trump presidency.
“It’s as if history is being collapsed into a black hole and everything is happening faster than the speed of light.”
Tribe argued that “the executive order really challenges who we are as Americans and violates important parts of the constitution” and noted there had been protests from the ground up.
“I think it’s an important turning point in our history and tonight is part of that extraordinary moment we are living through.”
Yates, a career justice department attorney, was the deputy attorney general in the Obama administration. The Trump team had asked her to stay on to allow for a cohesive transition, even as the other senior leadership of the justice department departed.
Jeff Sessions had been supposed to receive a Senate vote on his attorney general nomination on Tuesday. But Yates’s contradiction of Trump’s order, however short-lived it proved, lent the imprimatur of the justice department against one of the president’s signature initiatives.
Patrick Leahy, Democrat and ranking member of the Senate judiciary committee, said: “Federal courts have already found President Trump’s immigration order is very likely unconstitutional, and tonight acting attorney general Yates concluded that it was not legally defensible.
“She was fired for recognising that her oath is to the Constitution and not to President Trump. His accusation that she has ‘betrayed the Department of Justice’ is wrong and it is dangerous.
“President Trump has now put his cabinet on notice: if you adhere to your oath of office to defend the Constitution, you risk your job. Equally troubling is that his nominee for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, has shown no indication that he has the independence to put the Constitution before the president. The Senate at its best can be the conscience of the nation. Senators must oppose Senator Sessions.”
Lee Gelernt, of the American Civil Liberties Union’s immigrants rights project, said of Yates’s stand: “This is a remarkable but welcome development and sends a powerful message that there’s something very wrong with a Muslim ban.”