President Donald Trump fired acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates late Monday night following her public declaration that the Justice Department would not defend the president’s controversial immigration executive order on the grounds that it isn’t legal.
“Ms. Yates is an Obama administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration,” the White House said (without citing any evidence) in a statement late Monday contending Yates had “betrayed” the Justice Department. “It is time to get serious about protecting our country.”
Trump’s dismissal of Yates, a career prosecutor and an Obama administration holdover while Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions awaits Senate confirmation, has created a leadership vacuum at the top of the federal government’s chief law body.
The lack of an attorney general and the firing of the acting one further ups the ante on the Senate’s vote on Sessions. The Judiciary Committee was expected to vote on the nomination Tuesday morning, but several Republican Senators on the committee have criticized Trump’s executive order the last several days including Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska.
A spokesperson for the Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee emailed VICE News late Monday that the night’s developments have created “certainly high stakes at the markup tomorrow.”
Yates wrote to the DOJ’s lawyers earlier Monday instructing them not to enforce the executive orders Trump signed Friday pausing the U.S. refugee program and halting travel from seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days. The orders led to widespread detentions over the weekend and large protests at many airports around the country.
“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,” Yates wrote. “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.”
As dissent grew among voters, many Republican allies who believed in the overall purpose of the order criticized the Trump administration on Sunday and Monday for what they said was a confusing and haphazard execution of the plan. Even Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly chastised the commander-in-chief on his show Monday night for not going through the process more “methodically.”
Yates’ statement overruled the Office of Legal Counsel’s previous judgement that the order had been legal. Several organizations including the ACLU challenged the Trump administration’s executive order over the weekend, and more hearings are scheduled this week. Yates’ statement would have critically undermined the administration’s ability to defend its order in court.
For the moment, Trump has appointed U.S. Attorney Dana Boente, another Obama appointee, as acting attorney general. “I am honored to serve President Trump in this role until Senator Sessions is confirmed,” Boente said in a White House statement. “I will defend and enforce the laws of our country to ensure that our people and our nation are protected.”