January 31, 2017
President Trump on Monday ousted the acting attorney general, a holdover from the Obama administration, and installed a pick of his own choice, capping off a dramatic day as he moved to shore up the defense of his extreme vetting executive order.
Trump relieved Sally Yates, the deputy attorney general who had stepped into the role as the government’s top lawyer at the change of administrations, after she issued a kamikaze attack on her new boss, refusing to defend his executive order in the courts.
In her place, Trump named Dana Boente, a federal prosecutor, as acting attorney general.
The White House said Yates had “betrayed” the department.
“Yates is an Obama administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration,” the White House said. “It is time to get serious about protecting our country. Calling for tougher vetting for individuals traveling from seven dangerous places is not extreme. It is reasonable and necessary to protect our country.”
Yates seemed determined to go out in a blaze of glory, firing off a letter to her colleagues saying that even though the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel had approved the order, she thought it wasn’t lawful.
She also said it broke with her duty to “seek justice and stand for what is right.”
Even her supporters seemed shocked that she would take such a defiant stance against her new boss, but she quickly became a cult hero for liberals, who praised her for her “grit.”
Democrats blasted Trump for removing Yates, insisting that she was upholding the law.
“Donald Trump can try to silence heroic patriots like Sally Yates who dare to speak truth to power about his illegal anti-Muslim ban that emboldens terrorists around the globe. But he cannot silence the growing voices of an American people now wide awake to his tyrannical presidency,” said Zac Petkanas, senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee.
Her stance, and her firing, raised the already high stakes on Capitol Hill, where Democrats are using the executive order as a reason to further delay action on Trump’s Cabinet, including his pick of Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general.
Sen. Chuck Schumer,(D-NY.), said the episode underscored the need for an independent Justice Department.
“The firing of Sally Yates underscores how important it is to have an Attorney General who will stand up to the White House when they are violating the law. Many people have doubts about whether Jeff Sessions can be that person, and the full Senate and the American people should at the very least know exactly how independent he plans to be before voting on him,” Schumer said.
“The Attorney General should be loyal and pledge fidelity to the law, not the White House. The fact that this administration doesn’t understand that is chilling,” he said.
Boente, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, was sworn in at 9 p.m. and is now instilled with all the powers of the office until a full attorney general is confirmed. Within a matter of hours, the career prosecutor officially rescinded Yates’ order — noting that an analysis by the Office of Legal Counsel found the executive order was both lawful on its face and properly drafted.
“I am honored to serve President Trump in this role until Sen. Sessions is confirmed,” he said. “I will defend and enforce the laws of our country to ensure that our people and our nation are protected.”
Earlier in the evening, Republicans mounted a successful defense of Trump’s policy, turning back a quick-strike effort by Democrats in both the House and Senate to revoke the plan.
“President Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ is unnecessary, it’s unconstitutional, and it’s un-American,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-Ca.) who led the repeal effort. “We won’t stand for these types of actions.”
The White House had hoped it was past the worst of its problems. A weekend of disruptions and protests at airports had quieted, and the administration tweaked its policy to soften the hardest part that had threatened to prevent even longtime legal immigrants from returning home.
Press secretary Sean Spicer said only 109 people were delayed while facing extra scrutiny at airports over the weekend and that all of them had been released.
“I think the government did a phenomenal job of making sure that we process people through, but we did so knowing so that the people who were coming in hadn’t done anything that was seeking to do us harm,” he said.
Trump’s order imposes a temporary ban on most admissions from seven countries with histories of terrorism: Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya. It also halts refugee resettlement in the U.S. Both pauses are intended to give the administration time to stiffen its checks.
The order was signed Friday afternoon and immediately caused confusion as agents and airports, caught by surprise, struggled to figure out what to do.
A handful of federal judges issued rulings over the weekend ordering U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to release those they were holding, and an army of lawyers descended on airports to provide assistance to any others snared.
On Monday, high-powered lawyers said they were filing even broader lawsuits asking judges to invalidate major parts of the order.
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed one of the challenges, saying Trump’s order is hurting residents and businesses of his state and undercuts Washington’s efforts to make itself welcoming to immigrants and refugees.
“No one is above the law — not even the president,” Ferguson said in announcing his case. “And in the courtroom, it is not the loudest voice that prevails. It’s the Constitution.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations also filed a lawsuit.
Democrats derided the policy as a “Muslim ban,” though it applies only to a small fraction of the dozens of majority-Muslim countries. The seven countries affected were identified by Congress and the Obama administration — not by the Trump administration — as having connections to terrorism.
Polling suggests Trump’s order is popular.
A survey taken by Rasmussen Reports in the days before the order was signed found 56 percent of American voters backed the idea of a temporary halt on admitting people from the seven terrorist-connected countries.
Less than a third of those surveyed were opposed, according to the poll, which was taken before Mr. Trump signed the order and the chaos ensued.
Still, a number of Republicans abandoned Trump, to varying degrees. Some said he acted too rashly but defended the gist of the policy, while others said he botched the entire rollout. Foremost among the critics were Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, who said Trump was providing a recruiting tool for terrorists and making the country less safe.
The defections highlighted just how slim Trump’s margin of error is. Ahead of his inauguration, analysts predicted that Trump would have a short leash from both parties on Capitol Hill, and little more than a week into his tenure, his first stumble left him struggling to contain growing concerns from both sides of the aisle.
“When public opinion is negative, Republicans are quick to distance themselves from Trump. They understand that he is a contentious person, and they want to make sure they don’t get caught in the public backlash,” said Darrell M. West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Rep. Rob Bishop,(R-UT.), said Trump needs to be careful not to make the same mistakes as President Obama, who shunned cooperation with Congress and instead used executive actions to try to impose his agenda unilaterally.
“That was not the way our system was designed. Policy by executive fiat is wrong, regardless of who is doing it,” Bishop said. “It will destroy the structure of government … if it becomes a pattern.”
The Trump administration has already acted to blunt the hardest edges of the new order, granting a general waiver to all green card holders from the affected countries.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pleaded with Trump to carve out another exception for Iraqi citizens who contributed to the U.S. war effort and are now in danger of being left in that war-torn country.
“These allies risked their own lives, as well as the well-being of their families, to advance America’s security interests in a region where their skill sets and willingness to confront extremism have been invaluable to mission success,” six lawmakers — three Democrats and three Republicans — said in a letter Monday.
Thousands of translators who helped American troops have already been brought to the U.S., but more are trying to get in under a decade-old special visa program.
Leading the letter was Rep. Duncan Hunter,(R-Ca.) whose name was particularly important. Unlike the other signers, Mr. Hunter was an early and fervent supporter of Trump during the campaign.
“It’s not just good politics to make a special case for interpreters; it’s the right thing to do,” said Joe Kasper, Mr. Hunter’s chief of staff.