The legal morass created by President Donald Trump’s immigration order deepened Monday, with the government’s top lawyer instructing Justice Department attorneys not to defend the policy in court and Trump responding by firing her.
Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama administration holdover who was to serve until Trump’s nominee was installed, said in a letter released to reporters late Monday that she questioned the legality of Trump’s moves to block refugees and temporarily ban entry for citizens from seven Muslim nations.
“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 the letter, which was published by news agencies. “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 White House responded with a statement hours later that clearly reflected Trump’s anger. Using a word Trump has employed frequently to insult his opponents, the statement called Yates “weak on borders and very weak on immigration.”
“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,” the statement said.
“Tonight, President Trump has relieved Ms. Yates of her duties and subsequently named Dana Boente, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to serve as acting attorney general until Senator Jeff Sessions is finally confirmed by the Senate, where he is being wrongly held up by Democrat senators for strictly political reasons,” the statement added.
Boente, a 31-year veteran of the Justice Department who turns 63 next week, was appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia by President Barack Obama in 2015. He is known for prosecuting public corruption cases, including that of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell on bribery related charges. He also led the prosecutions in Louisiana of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., and former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin.
He was sworn in as acting attorney general at 9 p.m. Eastern time, the White House said.
“I am honored to serve President Trump in this role until Senator Sessions is confirmed,” the White House statement quoted Boente as saying. “I will defend and enforce the laws of our country to ensure that our people and our nation are protected.”
Yates issued no comment. She was born and raised in Atlanta, joined the U.S. attorney’s office in her hometown in 1989 and over the next 26 years made a steady climb up the ranks to the No. 2 job at the Justice Department.
The rapid late night developments recalled the “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973, when President Richard Nixon fired his attorney general and deputy attorney general over their refusal to dismiss Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. A former Justice Department spokesman, Matthew Miller, drew the connection in a series of tweets, saying Yates’ dismissal called into question the Justice Department’s independence.
“This kind of assault on DOJ’s independence has not happened since the Saturday night massacre,” Miller wrote. “The president thinks he is above the law.”
Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the House’s longest serving member and the last remaining member of the House Judiciary Committee who voted to impeach Nixon in July 1974, said he is “deeply proud of (Yates’) act of courage and patriotism” in refusing to authorize a legal defense of Trump’s immigration order.
Conyers said she reached a conclusion “shared by Americans from coast to coast – President Trump’s refugee order is neither lawful nor defensible. It is unconstitutional. It is beneath the character of the United States.”
The dramatic turn of events came on the third day of turmoil after Trump’s banning of U.S. entry for travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. The day had already offered the unprecedented scene of a former U.S. president endorsing nationwide protests against his successor just 10 days after leaving office.
Obama joined a chorus of prominent voices denouncing the travel ban as ill-conceived and un-American. A draft letter of dissent reportedly backed by dozens of State Department diplomats was leaked Monday. And the Council on American Islamic Relations, a nationwide Muslim advocacy group, filed a lawsuit arguing that Trump’s order is unconstitutional in its singling out of Muslims, the latest of some 30 legal challenges.
Meanwhile, immigration attorneys at major airports played a watchdog role in checking for the government’s compliance with federal court rulings that curbed the sweeping order Trump signed Friday. The lawyers reported no new deportations under the order, but said there were still cases where new arrivals weren’t given access to attorneys as one judge has ordered and that authorities had yet to release a full list of detainees.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dismissed such concerns at a briefing Monday, saying that “the system worked well” and that the airport snags affected only 109 people out of more than 300,000 travelers. Spicer offered no reassuring words to officials with concerns about the ban, saying that dissenters like the career diplomats speaking out at the State Department can “either get with the program or they can go.”
In a statement issued through a spokesman, Obama gave his tacit approval to the thousands of protesters whose mass mobilization against Trump is drawing comparisons to the activism of the Vietnam War era. Crowds of demonstrators have gathered outside of courthouses and filled airport arrival halls – even in heavily Trump-voting states such as Texas and Kansas.
“Citizens exercising their constitutional right to assemble, organize and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake,” Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said in the statement.
Trump’s order, signed last Friday, includes a 90-day ban on entry for citizens of seven Muslim nations: Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Libya. Trump has defended the order as an extra layer of protection against would-be foreign attackers.
Prominent national security strategists have said the hostile anti-Muslim tone works against U.S. counterterrorism goals, angering allies such as Iraq and giving credence to extremists’ recruitment line that the United States is at war with Islam.
Lukman Faily, who served for years as the Iraqi ambassador to the United States but no longer holds a diplomatic passport, said he’d been informed by U.S. officials that he, too, was barred under the order from returning to America. In a phone interview from Baghdad, Faily said the order only worsened tensions that were already simmering from Trump’s earlier remarks about taking Iraq’s oil.
An Iraqi parliamentary committee voted Monday to ask the prime minister to sign a reciprocal order restricting access to Iraq for U.S. citizens. Faily said the move shows how upset Iraqis are to be included in the ban when they’re working in tandem with U.S. forces to fight the Islamic State.
“There’s a level of confusion, there’s a level of people feeling unjustly treated,” Faily said. “And this is not just in the political class – it’s on the streets, it’s in Facebook messages.”
National advocacy groups were still monitoring arrivals at airports, pushing for attorney access and camping out on-site to offer legal aid. Attorneys didn’t report the same volume of concerns as over the weekend, but remained on standby as new batches of passengers arrived, providing a fresh round of test cases to determine who exactly falls under Trump’s order.
Elizabeth Foydel, policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project, an advocacy group involved in the mobilization of thousands of attorneys nationwide, said lawyers were still pushing for a complete list of names of people who’ve been held at airports since the order took effect.
Foydel said the government has now clarified that permanent residents, so-called green-card holders, should be allowed in at any port of entry and may not be detained indefinitely or deported, though they should be prepared for extra inspection.
And, she added, there are still cases of permanent residents being denied boarding overseas.
Fuad Sharef is an Iraqi who’d sold his house, car and most of his belongings in preparation for a new life in Nashville, Tennessee. He and his family are approved for resettlement under a special visa program for Iraqi who’d worked with U.S. personnel. They were en route to the United States when Trump signed the order; the family was deported to northern Iraq.
Devastated, he and his family are crashing at his brother-in-law’s place, unsure of what happens next. The worst part, Sharef said, is facing his children. He found his young daughter trying to calculate how long it’ll be before Trump’s ban might be lifted and they can make another attempt at getting to Tennessee.
“I don’t know how to explain the situation to them and I don’t want to lie,” Sharef said. “My little daughter was saying that after 90 days it’ll be the 27th of April, so on the 28th of April, we will go to America. I don’t know what to tell her. She’s counting the days.”
Lesley Clark, Greg Gordon, Anita Kumar and Mark Seibel contributed to this story.