On Monday evening, the White House released a statement announcing that the nation’s Acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, had “betrayed the Department of Justice” by refusing to enforce the president’s executive order banning citizens from seven countries from entering the United States.
The statement said Yates was “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.” Trump had “relieved Ms. Yates of her duties and subsequently named Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to serve as Acting Attorney General until Senator Jeff Sessions is finally confirmed by the Senate, where he is being wrongly held up by Democrat [sic] senators for strictly political reasons.”
The fight was over the president’s Muslim ban, as Yates made clear in a strong letter to Justice Department lawyers earlier that evening explaining why she would not defend it. Yates noted that her role at DoJ is different from that of the White House’s Office of Legal Counsel, which “does not address whether any policy choice embodied in an Executive Order is wise or just.” She also said the department must always take positions in court that “remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand up for what is right.”
“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,” she concluded. “Consequently, 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 appropriate to do so.”
— 🚶🏻Curtis S. Chin (@CurtisSChin) January 31, 2017
The judge in New York who granted the temporary restraining order that halted the implementation of the ban over the weekend did so on the basis that the order itself was likely unconstitutional.
Trump tweeted at 7:45 p.m. arguing that Democrats were delaying cabinet posts for “purely political reasons” and vaguely-but-ominously concluding, “now have an Obama A.G.”
The Democrats are delaying my cabinet picks for purely political reasons. They have nothing going but to obstruct. Now have an Obama A.G.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 31, 2017
Soon after, that was no longer the case and Yates was fired, replaced by Dana Boente, a 31-year veteran of the Justice Department and the District Attorney for the eastern district of Virginia.
Trump also replaced the James Ragsdale, the Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), on Monday, though it was not clear whether this was routine or in response to any refusal to enforce Trump’s immigration-related executive orders.
As deputy attorney general, Yates was in charge of the Justice Department’s day-to-day operations. She was a 27-year veteran of the department, prosecuting “numerous white-collar fraud and political corruption matters” according to her biography. As Deputy AG, Yates wrote a memo last March telling the department’s employees that they must “ensure that politics does not compromise the integrity of our work.”
CBS News’ White House correspondent Mark Knoller reported on Twitter that Dana Boente was sworn in as Acting Attorney General at 9pm, and that the White House viewed the appointment as temporary because it expected Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Trump’s nominee for attorney general, to be confirmed in “days.”
The last president to fire an attorney general was Richard Nixon, who fired his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General in the “Saturday Night Massacre” when they refused to comply with his order to dismiss the Watergate Special Prosecutor.
Yates received broad bipartisan support when she was confirmed with 84 votes in 2015.
“I supported her nomination, both in Committee and today in the full Senate, and I hope that she will show independence as she provides leadership at the Department,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a May 2015 statement. “As she told us during her hearing, she is aware that her client is, ‘The people of the United States… not the President… not the Congress, it’s the people of the United States.”