Trump Fires Acting Attorney General for Speaking Out Against Travel Ban

White House says Sally Yates 'betrayed' the Justice Department after she instructed the department's lawyers not to defend the ban in court.

Acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates.
J. David Ake/AP

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In a dramatic move that has brought the clash between U.S. President Donald Trump and the senior professional rank of the U.S. government to an unprecedented level, the White House declared on Monday night that it was sacking Acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates over for her opposition to last Friday's executive order banning the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country.

Yates said Monday that she will not defend the executive order in court, explaining in a letter to Justice Department attorneys that "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." She also wrote that she "was 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 Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel reviewed Trump's executive order before the president signed it, but Yates explained in her letter that this entity within her department "did not address whether any policy choice embodied in an executive order is wise or just," adding that it was her "responsibility 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.”

Jeff Session questions Sally Yates at her confirmation hearing

Yates made it clear in her letter that "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." Yates was appointed Deputy Attorney General by former President Barack Obama in 2015, and became acting Attorney General ten days ago following Trump's inauguration. Trump's nominee for Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) awaits confirmation from the Senate. 

The White House's reaction to Yates' letter arrived on Monday night in the form of a strong-worded press release, accusing her of having "betrayed the Department of Justice" and adding that " Ms. Yates is an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration." The statement also said that Trump has named Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to serve as acting attorney general until Sessions is finally confirmed. 

Shortly after the announcement of Yates' removal, the administration announced the replacement of another senior official relating to immigration policy. Daniel Ragsdale, the acting director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was replaced Monday night by Thomas Homan, a veteran police officer with "nearly 30 years of immigration enforcement experience," according to the Department of Homeland Security. The statement didn't explain why Mr. Ragsdale was removed from his position.

Stephen Miller, Trump's policy adviser at the heart of the controversy stemming from the executive order, told MSNBC that Yates' letter to her employees at the department was "a further demonstration of how politicized our legal system has become." Yates received support from Eric Holder, former attorney general under Obama, who tweeted that "Sally Yates: a person of integrity, attorney with great legal skills, has served this nation with distinction. Her judgment should be trusted." 

Since Friday night, Trump's executive order has been challenged in courts across the country, and as of Monday night, at least four federal judges in different courts have ruled in favor of people who were detained as a result of it.