Donald Trump fires acting attorney general for defying travel ban
White House accuses legal adviser of betrayal for questioning legality of immigration order
US president Donald Trump fired the country’s top legal adviser accusing her of betrayal for refusing to enforce his order banning nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country.
Acting attorney general Sally Yates, an Obama administration appointee who remained on in her role pending the Senate’s confirmation of Mr Trump’s nominee Jeff Sessions, ordered justice department lawyers not to defend the new president’s executive order in court on the basis that it may be unlawful.
The Trump administration fired Ms Yates in a note hand-delivered by the White House on Monday evening, replacing her with Dana Boente, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia who will serve until Mr Sessions, the Alabama senator, is confirmed by the Senate.
Hours after being sworn in, Mr Boente rescinded Ms Yates’s order and directed “the men and women of the Department of Justice to do our sworn duty and to defend the lawful orders of our President.”
He described Mr Trump’s order as “both lawful on its face and properly drafted.”
Last night’s dramatic purging of a top-ranking law enforcement agent highlights the level of unrest within official circles at Mr Trump’s order that has triggered mass protests, led to legal challenges and drawn widespread criticism.
Parallels were drawn with the “Saturday Night Massacre” of president Richard Nixon’s time in office when in 1973 the attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned rather than follow an order by the president to fire a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.
Ms Yates told lawyers in her department in a letter on Monday that she was responsible for making arguments in court that “remain 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.”
Her letter may represent a symbolic last stand by a top Obama official against Mr Trump in light of the likely confirmation of Mr Sessions, but it laid bare the unease within law enforcement circles at Mr Trump’s far-reaching measure, one of the signature policies of his 2016 presidential campaign.
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Sally Yates’s letter to justice department official
“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,” Ms Yates wrote.
The White House said that Ms Yates “betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States. ”
“Ms Yates is an Obama administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration,” the Trump administration said in a statement.
“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,” the statement continued, a day after describing the measure as “extreme vetting.”
‘Get with the programme or go’
Speaking on the floor of the US senate, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the chamber, described Ms Yates’s act of defiance as “a profile in courage” and a “brave act and a right act.”
Mr Trump has accused Mr Schumer and his fellow Democrats of dragging their heels on the appointment of his cabinet picks.
“The Democrats are delaying my cabinet picks for purely political reasons,” he tweeted on Monday night before Ms Yates was fired. “They have nothing going but to obstruct. Now have an Obama AG.”
A number of Mr Trump’s top aides and senior Republicans along with senior members of the intelligence community have said that they were not involved in drafting the president’s order.
Defence Secretary James Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Rex Tillerson, who is awaiting confirmation as Secretary of State, have told associates they were unaware of the details of the president’s decree until when Mr Trump signed it late last Friday afternoon.
Dozens of State Department diplomats have been signing a memo being circulated through the department’s formal “dissent channel” that criticises the president’s executive order.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer told federal employees refusing to implement Mr Trump’s directive that they should “either get with the programme or they can go.”
“He is going to implement things that are in the best interest of the safety of this country prospectively, not re-actively,” Mr Spicer told reporters at the daily press briefing.
“And if somebody has a problem with that agenda then that does call into question whether or not they should continue in that post or not.”
One of America’s best known lawyers, Alan Dershowitz, criticised the way Ms Yates played into Mr Trump’s hands before he fired her.
The emeritus professor of law at Harvard University told BBC Radio 4 that while he believed the travel to be wrong and partly illegal, Ms Yates had made tactical mistakes in her criticism of the policy.
Mr Dershowitz said Ms Yates “should not have ordered the justice department not to defend it [the travel ban]. She should have simply resigned in protest, but instead she made it almost imperative for the president to fire her”.
He added that Trump will have stored up resentment in the justice department by sacking Ms Yates.
“There will be some people who are civil servants who will always resent the fact that the president fired the acting attorney general. So this will cause him some long term damage in his relations with the justice department, but President Trump doesn’t think long term.”
Additional reporting: Guardian