The White House on Tuesday stood by its decision not to tell former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates about its first controversial order barring U.S. entry to immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, describing her as a “political opponent of the president.”
“This is someone who ultimately didn’t even want to enforce it,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said. “I think ultimately we were proved right about who needed to be in the loop on that, because she ultimately chose to disregard the president’s lawful order.”
Yates’ view that Trump’s order was unlawful and inconsistent with the principles of the Justice Department ultimately was upheld by three federal courts that blocked its enforcement; the Trump administration eventually withdrew it and replaced it with a more carefully drawn order that nevertheless also has been blocked by the federal courts.
Spicer noted that Yates, who was fired Jan. 30 for failing to enforce the travel ban, was appointed by the Obama administration and was a strong supporter of Trump’s rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“It was widely rumored (that she would) play a large role in the Justice Department if Hillary Clinton had won,” Spicer said.
Yates former principal deputy, Matt Axelrod, who is now in private practice, disputed Spicer’s characterization of Yates as a partisan, pointing out that she was confirmed as deputy attorney general on an 84-12 bipartisan vote.
“Sally Yates has a nearly three-decade record of public service as a prosecutor at the Department of Justice, where she steadfastly and consistently followed the facts and the law,” he said. “Her character and integrity are widely respected on both sides of political aisle. She handled the matters she faced as acting attorney general as she handled all matters during her 27 years at DOJ, by the book and with an unwavering commitment to doing what’s right.”
Spicer said he did not know why Yates was not told about the order and could not say whether it was on purpose.
“If we want to relitigate the first executive order, at the time, we talked about all of the proper individuals that needed to be made aware of were made aware,” Spicer said.
Trump signed the ban on Jan. 27, the same day Yates met for a second time with White House counsel Donald McGahn about National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Yates said she read about the order in the newspaper.
We were correct in the assumptions that we made at the time
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer
Trump’s first order halted travel to the United States by citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Immigration and customs agents initially blocked the entry of all citizens from the seven countries, including those who’d lived in the United States for years, leading to confusion and protests at U.S. airports.
A Seattle-based U.S. District Judge James Robart later blocked implementation. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision, which led the White House to issue a second order.
The revised order dropped Iraq from the list of targeted countries but was also blocked after the state of Hawaii argued it would harm its Muslim population, its tourism industry and its universities’ ability to recruit foreign students.
On Monday, Sen. Ted Cruz criticized Yates for failing to enforce the ban after the Office of Legal Counsel signed off on the document. But Yates said that that office looks only at the face of the document but not beyond, such as on a fundamental issue like religious freedom.
David Goldstein contributed to this report.