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Trump fires defiant acting attorney general

Sally Yates was blasted by President Donald Trump as “an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.” | AP Photo

The Obama administration official serving as acting chief had instructed lawyers there not to defend President Trump’s executive order.

Updated

President Donald Trump fired the nation’s acting attorney general Monday night after she refused to defend an executive order he issued last week restricting immigration in the name of national security.

In an act of high political drama just 10 days after taking office, Trump replaced Obama administration appointee Sally Yates with the U.S. Attorney in Alexandria, Va., Dana Boente.

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“The acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States. This order was approved as to form and legality by the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel,” a White House statement said. “Ms. Yates is an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”

Yates could not be reached for comment on Trump’s attack, but a person close to her called the criticism from the White House absurd.

“That’s preposterous. Everyone knows she’s a career prosecutor for nearly three decades, well-respected by serious members of both parties,” said the Yates associate, who asked not to be named. “That dog won’t hunt.”

A Trump aide accused Yates of seeking attention.

“She knew what she was doing and she knew she’d be fired. She just wanted the publicity,” said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Yates, who was the No. 2 official at the department before Trump’s swearing-in and has been running the department since that time at Trump’s request, sent a memo Monday saying she doubts the wisdom and the legality of the directive blocking immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries.

“My responsibility is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible, but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts. In addition, 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 memo released by the department earlier Monday.

“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,” the acting Justice Department head said. “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.”

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Some lawyers warned removing Yates could disrupt other department operations, including surveillance aimed at suspected terrorists. However, two officials said Monday night that as a Senate-confirmed official Boente could sign such orders.

Trump’s removal of Yates had echoes of the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973, when Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than comply with President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Solicitor General Robert Bork assumed the role of acting attorney general and complied with Nixon’s demand.

Trump’s first reaction to Yates’ move came in a tweet earlier Monday evening.

“The Democrats are delaying my Cabinet picks for purely political reasons. They have nothing going but to obstruct. Now have an Obama A.G.,” Trump wrote, apparently accusing Yates of blocking his agenda. He did not complete the thought. The White House did not reply to a request for further comment.

Dana Boente is now the acting attorney general.

Dana Boente is now the acting attorney general. | AP Photo

Boente was sworn in at about 9 p.m. Monday, according to a White House official who did not immediately provide details on who carried out the ceremony.

Boente, who has served as a Justice Department attorney for more than 30 years, was nominated by President Barack Obama as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia in 2015 and confirmed later that year. He has embraced his new role leading the department, according to a statement issued by the White House.

“I am honored to serve President Trump in this role until Senator Sessions is confirmed. I will defend and enforce the laws of our country to ensure that our people and our nation are protected,” Boente said. His statement did not address what stance he plans to take on Trump’s executive order.

Boente may not be in the position for long. Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), is scheduled for a vote Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee. A floor vote on his nomination is expected in the following days, but the exact timing remains unclear.

The executive order Trump signed Friday temporarily halts travel to the U.S. by residents of seven majority-Muslim countries, suspends refugee admissions for 120 days and indefinitely shuts down the admission of Syrian refugees to the U.S. Another provision in the order gives Christians and other religious minorities in largely Muslim countries priority to immigrate to the U.S.

Yates memo suggests she views the order as legally suspect not solely because of its wording but also because of statements Trump and others have made about it. Trump indicated in an interview last week that the order was intended to give Christians an advantage in the immigration process. An outside adviser to Trump, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has said the order grew out of Trump’s effort to find a “legal” way to follow through on his campaign trail promise to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.

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Yates’ order would have left the government with no authorized courtroom representation in several lawsuits and dozens of other court actions challenging Trump’s order and the way it was carried out by immigration authorities. At least one of the suits is currently seeking a broad restraining order against Trump’s directive.

Yates spent more than a decade as a career prosecutor in Atlanta, before being appointed as the U.S. Attorney there by President Barack Obama in 2010. Obama nominated her as deputy attorney general in 2014 and she assumed the role early the following year.

Most political appointees resigned or offered to resign with the change in administration, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch. However, the Justice Department announced a few days before Trump’s inauguration that he asked Yates to stay on as acting head of the department until a new attorney general was confirmed.

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Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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