Justice Head Tells Staff Not to Defend Trump Refugee Order

January 30, 2017 Updated: January 31, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sally Yates was fired by the Trump administration on Monday, it was confirmed.

Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, a Democratic appointee, on Monday directed Justice Department attorneys not to defend President Donald Trump’s controversial executive refugee and immigration ban, joining a growing group of administration officials distancing themselves from the new president’s order.

Her directive was likely to be temporary, given that Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, will likely move to uphold the president’s policy. Sessions is awaiting Senate confirmation.

Still, it set up a dramatic standoff between a president and his own Justice Department just days into his tenure. 

“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 a letter announcing her position. “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.”

Trump responded Monday by accusing Democrats of delaying approval of his Cabinet nominees for political reasons. “Now have an Obama A.G.,” the president wrote on Twitter.

Yates’ abrupt decision deepened the discord and dissent surrounding Trump’s order, which temporarily halted the entire U.S. refugee program and banned all entries from seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days. As protests erupted at airports over the weekend and confusion disrupted travel around the globe, some of Trump’s top advisers and fellow Republicans privately noted they were not consulted about the policy.

At least three top national security officials—Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Rex Tillerson, who is awaiting confirmation to lead the State Department—have told associates they were not aware of details of directive until around the time Trump signed it. Leading intelligence officials were also left largely in the dark, according to U.S. officials.

Mattis, who stood next to Trump during Friday’s signing ceremony, is said to be particularly incensed. A senior U.S. official said Mattis, along with Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford, was aware of the general concept of Trump’s order but not the details. Tillerson has told the president’s political advisers that he was baffled over not being consulted on the substance of the order.

U.S. officials and others with knowledge of the Cabinet’s thinking insisted on anonymity in order to disclose the officials’ private views.

Trump’s order pauses America’s entire refugee program for four months and indefinitely bans all those from war-ravaged Syria. Federal judges in New York and several other states issued orders that temporarily block the government from deporting people with valid visas who arrived after Trump’s travel ban took effect.

The president has privately acknowledged flaws in the rollout, according to a person with knowledge of his thinking. But he’s also blamed the media — his frequent target — for what he believes are reports exaggerating the dissent and the number of people actually affected.

Trump has also said he believes the voters who carried him to victory support the plan as a necessary step to safeguard the nation. And he’s dismissed objectors as attention-seeking rabble-rousers and grandstanding politicians.

Homeland Security, the agency tasked with implementing much of the refugee ban, clarified that customs and border agents should allow legal residents to enter the country. The Pentagon was trying to exempt Iraqis who worked alongside the U.S. and coalition forces from the 90-day ban on entry from the predominantly Muslim countries.

Some Trump supporters defended the president, saying his actions should not have come as a surprise given his positions during the campaign.

“Nothing he did over the weekend was new,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and an informal adviser. He conceded that coordination could have been better, but he said Trump’s vow to quickly bring change to Washington will sometimes mean he needs to prioritize fast action over broad consultation.

“If you’re the reformer, you need the momentum,” Gingrich said.