President Donald Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates on Monday night, hours after Yates ordered Justice Department lawyers not to defend his immigration order temporarily banning entry into the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from around the world.
In a news release, the White House said Yates had "betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States."
The White House named Dana Boente, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, as acting attorney general. Boente then directed the Justice Department to enforce the immigration order.
In her memo to the Justice Department, Yates declared that she is not convinced that Trump's order is lawful.
Yates wrote that, as the leader of the Justice Department, she must ensure that the department's position is "legally defensible" and "consistent with this institution's solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right."
She wrote that "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."
The decision by the acting attorney general recalls the "Saturday Night Massacre" in 1973, when President Richard Nixon fired his attorney general and deputy attorney general for refusing to dismiss the special prosecutor in the Watergate case.
That case prompted a constitutional crisis that ended when Robert Bork, the solicitor general, acceded to Nixon's order and fired Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor.
Yates was appointed deputy attorney general under President Barack Obama. She became acting attorney general when Loretta Lynch left the position.
Trump's pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., could be confirmed later this week. The Senate Judiciary Committee will consider his nomination today, and the Senate must wait a day before voting.
Meanwhile, Trump's pick for secretary of state cleared a Senate hurdle Monday evening. Senators voted 56-43 to put Rex Tillerson's bid on track for confirmation later this week. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., pressed unsuccessfully for a delay in the vote until Tillerson answered for Trump's travel ban order.
Trump denies disorder
Earlier Monday, Trump continued to defend the order, despite mounting criticism and questions that stretched from Capitol Hill to the United Nations.
In a series of tweets Monday morning, Trump blamed others for the disorganized implementation of the order and minimized its effect on travelers. The order was followed by two days of protests at airport terminals across the country.
Trump said in his tweets that the "big problems at airports" were caused by demonstrators, an airline's technical problems and Schumer, who teared up while discussing the ban. Delta Air Lines suffered technical problems Sunday evening -- 48 hours after Trump signed the immigration order -- that grounded about 280 flights Sunday and Monday.
"Only 109 people out of 325,000 were detained and held for questioning," Trump tweeted. "Big problems at airports were caused by Delta computer outage. ... protesters and the tears of Senator Schumer."
Trump also tweeted that Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly "said that all is going well with very few problems. Make America safe again!"
The Pentagon, in a move that would provide some guidance to the Department of Homeland Security and the White House in implementing the new policy, was compiling a list of Iraqis who have worked with the U.S. military and recommending that they be exempt from the temporary travel ban.
The list would not require any changes to the president's order but could shield from the ban tens of thousands of Iraqi interpreters, advisers and others who have assisted the U.S. military.
Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Monday that the list will include names of individuals who have "demonstrated their commitment" to helping the United States.
"Even people that are doing seemingly benign things in support of us -- whether as a linguist, a driver, anything else -- they often do that at great personal risk," he said. "So people who take these risks are really making a tangible signal of support to the United States, and that's something that will, and should be, recognized."
Trump's order continued to spark protests at major airports, questions from coast to coast and court cases challenging its constitutionality.
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, said the situation at airports on Monday remained "chaotic and fluid" and that lawyers were "having trouble independently verifying anything because the government will not provide full access to all the detainees."
Gelernt said that by Monday afternoon, no list of detainees had been turned over, adding that the ACLU could be back in court within a day to get the list in order to obtain more definitive information.
In Washington state on Monday, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he plans to file a federal lawsuit seeking an immediate halt to the order's implementation.
Ferguson is the first state official to declare plans to file such a suit. A day earlier, Ferguson joined 15 other state attorneys general in calling the measure unconstitutional.
Eric Schneiderman, the New York attorney general who joined in that message, is reviewing possible options "and that could certainly include litigation," Amy Spitalnick, a spokesman, said Monday.
Obama -- in his first public criticism of Trump since leaving office -- on Monday endorsed protests that have emerged nationwide.
Obama is "heartened by the level of engagement taking place in communities around the country," Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for the former president, said in a statement. "Citizens exercising their Constitutional right to assemble, organize and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake."
Alluding to Trump's claim that his ban was based on Obama administration decisions, Lewis said the former president "fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion."
On Capitol Hill, criticism persisted from both Democrats and Republicans.
Democrats sought to capitalize on the growing public outcry and said Monday that they were hoping to pass legislation rescinding the ban and planning to delay confirmation votes for Trump's Cabinet nominees.
In the Senate, Democrats attempted to force a vote to overturn the order, but Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., objected. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she had 27 co-sponsors of a bill to rescind the order Trump signed Friday, but under Senate rules it takes only one member to prevent a vote.
Some Republicans have spoken out against the ban, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, top defense hawks who issued a joint statement worrying that the order could "become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism."
In Arkansas on Monday, U.S. Rep. French Hill, a Republican, defended the overall policy, saying in a statement that "the short pause in refugee arrivals will help the new administration design an effective process for vetting."
But, Hill said, "the design and implementation appear unreasonable and have unintended consequences for law-abiding citizens of both the United States and other nations. While modest inconveniences are acceptable in order to keep our homeland safe, blocking U.S. green-card holders, students and professors possessing proper visas, and those extraordinary men and women who have aided us in our global war on Terror is not acceptable."
Hill called for policies that provide security while also allowing refugees to enter the country.
Criticism also emerged in other quarters. State Department diplomats have been circulating a document objecting to Trump's order since he announced it Friday. According to a draft version of the memo, first reported by the Lawfare blog, the authors say the ban will not deter attacks on American soil but will generate ill will to U.S. citizens.
Several versions of the draft were floating around the State Department as diplomats weighed in and asked for revisions. Yet as it was being circulated, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said, "I think they should either get with the program or they can go."
One lawsuit filed Monday alleges wrongdoing by customs agents at Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
According to the complaint, the agents forced lawful permanent U.S. residents to give up their green cards over the weekend. Tareq Aqel Mohammed Aziz and Ammar Aqel Mohammed Aziz were flying from Yemen to the U.S. Both had been granted immigrant visas because their father, who lives in Flint, Mich., is a U.S. citizen.
When they arrived at Dulles on Saturday morning, the Aziz brothers were handcuffed and their immigration paperwork was seized, according to the complaint.
They were given documents to sign and allegedly told that if they did not, they would be removed from the U.S. and barred from coming back for five years, according to the complaint. They were not allowed to see attorneys.
Under pressure, their attorneys say, they signed documents they did not understand, giving up their American visas, and agents stamped "cancelled" on those visas. Attorneys are asking for their visas to be returned, the forms they signed to be invalidated and for them to be returned to the United States.
Attorneys say about 50 to 60 other legal permanent residents were likewise tricked into giving up their status at Dulles.
Elsewhere, the Council on American Islamic Relations on Monday filed a sweeping challenge to the executive order, alleging that its "purpose is to initiate the mass expulsion of immigrant and non-immigrant Muslims lawfully residing in the United States."
That lawsuit lists 27 plaintiffs, some of them activists and council officials and others students with visas, lawful permanent residents, refugees and others who allege Trump's order will deny them citizenship or prevent them from traveling abroad and returning home.
In a statement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed concerns about "the uncertainty facing thousands of refugees around the world who are in the process of being resettled to the United States."
According to the agency, more than 800 refugees were set to go to America this week but are barred, and the 120-day halt on refugee resettlement could affect as many as 20,000 refugees.
Abroad, Iraqi parliament leaders called for retaliatory visa restrictions on American citizens, while a petition signed by more than 1 million called on Britain to cancel Trump's state visit amid the furor.
The seven countries under Trump's ban do not include several that have been tied to terrorists involved in major attacks or attempted plots in the United States.
White House officials through the weekend and Monday continued to justify the ban by citing the Sept. 11, 2001, attack, Boston Marathon bombing and San Bernardino, Calif., shooting rampage. None of these attacks involved people born in countries listed on the ban.
Information for this article was contributed by Mark Berman, Sari Horowitz, Matt Zapotosky, Rachel Weiner, Ellen Nakashima, Juliet Eilperin, John Wagner and Carol Morello of The Washington Post; by Jill Colvin, Alicia Caldwell, Steve Peoples, Julie Pace, Martha Bellisle and Richard Lardner of The Associated Press; by W.J. Hennigan of Tribune News Service; and by Frank Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 01/31/2017