President Donald Trump fired the nation’s acting attorney general as the repercussions from his executive order banning some immigrant travel continue to shake his administration.
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Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama administration holdover, after she said in a message to staff today that the president’s order was not consistent with the Justice Department’s “solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.” She added that, “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.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said in a statement tonight announcing her dismissal that Yates had “betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.” Trump had shot back at Yates’s message earlier, saying on Twitter that frustrated Democrats were obstructing his Cabinet picks and that they “now have an Obama A.G.,” a reference to Yates.
The Trump administration named Dana Boente, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to replace Yates as acting attorney general, according to the statement. Also an Obama appointee, Boente’s office handled prosecutions including the corruption case against former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, a Republican whose conviction was thrown out last year.
Waiting for confirmation
As the deputy attorney general under former President Barack Obama, the 56-year-old Yates had been asked to stay on by the Trump team while his nominee for the top Justice Department post, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, moves through the confirmation process. The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to debate and vote on Sessions’s candidacy Tuesday.
The unusual public defiance by Yates, who would have been expected to leave the Justice Department when Sessions is confirmed, was the latest twist in a controversy that has sparked protests at airports across the country and seen many congressional Republicans break from the White House over Trump’s move to ban travel by people from seven Muslim-majority nations. Her statement lent the authority of her office to several legal challenges under way against the order across the country.
“For as long as I am the acting Attorney General, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense of the executive order, unless and until I become convinced that it is appropriate to do so,” Yates said in her statement, released hours before she was fired.
‘Politicized’ legal system
Stephen Miller, a White House senior adviser who helped write the Trump administration order, said on MSNBC today evening that Yates’s statement was “a further demonstration of how politicized our legal system has become.” He said the president has “the absolute right” under immigration law to exclude any class of visitors from entering the country.
“The president has that authority,” Miller said. “It’s been delegated by Congress.”
Trump’s order temporarily barred entry for people from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya, tripping up people who were already legal residents of the U.S. or visa holders, and suspended refugee immigration programs.
Controversy also erupted at the State Department last week, where several veteran career officials stepped down as Trump moves to put his stamp on U.S. foreign policy. Other foreign service officers then began circulating a draft of a so-called dissent memo criticizing Trump’s immigration executive order after it was issued on Friday.
Boente was sworn in about 9 p.m., shortly before the firing was announced, said White House spokesman Michael Short.
“I am honored to serve President Trump in this role until Senator Sessions is confirmed,” Boente said in a statement released by the White House. “I will defend and enforce the laws of our country to ensure that our people and our nation are protected.”
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly is planning to head to Capitol Hill Tuesday to meet privately with top House and Senate leaders, including Republicans and Democrats from key committees, according to two congressional aides. The exact timing for the meeting is still uncertain, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Speaker Paul Ryan were among those trying to make time to attend, according to aides.
Others invited to attend are Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and the top two Democrats in the House, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, as well as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Some committee chairmen and ranking Democrats, including those on the Homeland Security, Judiciary, Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Appropriations panels, are also invited.
A Republican congressional aide said the House Homeland Security Committee wasn’t consulted on the executive order, and an aide to a Republican House Judiciary Committee member said he wasn’t aware of any committee members or staffers being consulted. On Sunday, a senior leadership aide said congressional leaders had no role in drafting the order.
The administration said the executive order had been carefully crafted and well implemented. Trump, in a tweet, said Kelly “said that all is going well with very few problems.”
But there were many reports of immigrants denied entry at U.S. airports or stuck at airports overseas, and advocacy groups alleged that customs agents were defying court orders to let people into the country.
“They understand that this was not handled in the most productive manner,” Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who’s chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters. Corker said he wasn’t briefed before the order landed, and said he hopes there’s more communication and an inter-agency process next time for something thus far-reaching.
“My guess is they’re going to try to clean it up,” Corker said.
Representative Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican, called for the order to be pulled back.
“This was overly broad, overly rushed and implemented in a haphazard manner,” he said.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who ran against Trump for the Republican nomination, said he had been trying to get more information about the orders but that State Department officials told his staff that they had been ordered not to talk to Congress.
“There is no doubt” that multiple committees will be asking administration officials to explain the policy, he said.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, whose control over all legislation spending federal money makes him a key figure in Congress, warned of a potential investigation of the disruption in enacting the order.
“This weekend’s confusion is an indication that the details of this executive order were not properly scrutinized,” the New Jersey Republican said in a statement. “Congress has important oversight responsibilities over all executive orders, which we intend to exercise.”