Trump Fires Justice Department Head Over Clash on Refugee Ban

January 31, 2017 Updated: January 31, 2017

WASHINGTON—In an extraordinary public showdown, President Donald Trump fired the acting attorney general of the United States after she publicly questioned the constitutionality of his refugee and immigration ban and directed Justice Department employees to disobey the order.

The firing, in a written statement released just hours after Yates went public with her concerns, served as a warning to other administration officials that Trump is prepared to terminate those who refuse to carry out his orders.

Yates’ refusal to defend the executive order was largely symbolic given that Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, will almost certainly defend the policy once he’s sworn in. He’s expected to be confirmed Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee and could be approved within days by the full Senate.

Yet the firing reflected the mounting conflict over the executive order, as administration officials have moved to distance themselves from the policy.

As protests erupted at some airports across the globe, and as legal challenges piled up in courthouses, Yates directed agency attorneys not to defend the executive order. She said in a memo Monday she was not convinced it was lawful or consistent with the agency’s obligation “to stand for what is right.”

Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, soon followed with a statement accusing Yates of having “betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.” Trump named longtime federal prosecutor Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, as Yates’ replacement. Boente was sworn in privately late Monday, the White House said, and rescinded Yates’s directive.

Dana Boente, then-First Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia leaves federal court in Alexandria, Va., on Jan. 26, 2012. President Donald Trump has fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she announced she would not defend his controversial immigration order. And he's naming Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to serve in her place. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Dana Boente, then-First Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia leaves federal court in Alexandria, Va., on Jan. 26, 2012. President Donald Trump has fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she announced she would not defend his controversial immigration order. And he’s naming Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to serve in her place. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Also late Monday, the acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement was removed. The administration didn’t offer any explanation for the move, only said via Twitter that Daniel Ragsdale is returning to his previous position as deputy director. ICE executive associate director Thomas Homan was elevated to the role of acting chief.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in a statement that Homan had led efforts “to identify, arrest, detain, and remove illegal aliens.” The statement didn’t mention Ragsdale.

The chain of events bore echoes of the Nixon-era “Saturday Night Massacre,” when the attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned rather than follow an order to fire a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal. The prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was fired by the solicitor general.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 19, 2015.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Yates is a holdover from the Obama administration and was the top federal prosecutor in Atlanta and later became Loretta Lynch’s deputy.

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 the directive until around the time Trump signed it. Leading intelligence officials were also left largely in the dark, according to U.S. officials.

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that despite White House assurances that congressional leaders were consulted, he learned about the order from the media.

A large group of career diplomats circulated several drafts of a memo arguing that the order Trump signed last week will not make the United States safe, saying it runs counter to American values and will fuel anti-American sentiment around the world.

Spicer challenged those opposed to the measure to resign. “They should either get with the program or they can go,” he said.

Seven countries were targeted by the ban.
Seven countries were targeted by the ban.

Trump’s order pauses America’s entire refugee program for four months, indefinitely bans all those from Syria, and temporarily freezes immigration from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. 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 and found themselves in limbo.

Yates on Monday said that she had reviewed the policy and concluded that it was at odds with the Justice Department’s mission. She said that though other lawyers in the department had reviewed the order, their review had not addressed whether it was “wise or just.”

Trump said the order had been approved by Justice Department lawyers. However, the department has said the Office of Legal Counsel review was limited to whether the order was properly drafted, but did not address broader policy questions.

Trump has blamed the media for what he says are reports exaggerating the dissent and the number of people actually affected.

Homeland Security, the agency tasked with implementing much of the refugee ban, said 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.

Epoch Times contributed to this report.