WASHINGTON: An embattled Donald Trump fired his government’s chief lawyer for refusing to defend his controversial immigration orders late Monday, deepening a political crisis engulfing his presidency. In a caustic statement, Trump’s White House said acting attorney general Sally Yates “betrayed” the Department of Justice in defying the president and had been relieved of her duties with immediate effect.
Yates – a career prosecutor promoted by president Barack Obama and held over by Trump pending confirmation of his own nominee, Senator Jeff Sessions – had refused to defend Trump’s ban on immigration from seven Muslim nations. In a memo to Department of Justice staff, she expressed doubts about the legality and morality of Trump’s decree.
“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,” Yates wrote. “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 added. “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.”
In the end, her tenure lasted only a few more hours. The White House snapped back, accusing Yates of being “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration”. Trump has replaced Yates with federal prosecutor Dana Boente as he awaits the Senate confirmation of Sessions. Boente said he would defend Trump’s directive, stating that it was “both lawful on its face and properly drafted”.
Trump’s executive order suspends the arrival of all refugees for a minimum of 120 days, Syrian refugees indefinitely and bars citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days. Several federal judges have since filed temporary stays against the decree’s implementation. On Sunday, attorneys general from 16 US states, including California and New York, condemned Trump’s directive as “unconstitutional” and vowed to fight it.
Trump’s furious response may have lasting political repercussions, not least complicating Sessions’ confirmation. He faced a vote yesterday on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and then has to be confirmed by the full Senate before taking up the post. Congress’s top Democrat, Senator Chuck Schumer said Yates’ firing underscored how important “it is to have an Attorney General who’ll stand up to the White House when they violate the law”.
The firing came as Trump said he would announce his pick to fill a Supreme Court opening. The unveiling was originally scheduled for tomorrow. Democratic lawmakers have vociferously opposed Trump’s immigration order and Republicans are privately seething over the way his White House has handled the issue.
In a separate decision announced without explanation by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Trump also replaced acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement director Daniel Ragsdale. The two dismissals in one night has echoes of President Richard Nixon’s 1973 “Saturday night massacre” during the Watergate scandal. Then, Nixon fired the special prosecutor investigating him, prompting the departures of his attorney general and deputy attorney general. The events catalyzed Nixon’s impeachment.
House Democrat John Conyers, Jr said that Trump’s conduct “is Nixonian in its design and execution,” and threatens the justice department’s independence. “If dedicated government officials deem his directives to be unlawful and unconstitutional, he will simply fire them as if government is a reality show,” Conyers said in a statement.
The drama at the Justice Department is another sign of how hastily Trump’s immigration order was developed and how little it was reviewed by the agencies now grappling to implement it. The White House said key government officials were briefed before Trump signed the order on Friday, but there was little coordination or consultation, resulting in confusion. Most State Department officials found out about it from media reports.
Officials from the State Department circulated a draft memo of dissent on Monday, saying Trump’s move would hurt America’s image abroad and inflame anti-American sentiment. White House spokesman Sean Spicer dismissed the memo. “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it? I think that they should either get with the program or they can go,” he told reporters at his daily briefing.
But after a weekend of chaos at airports, protests and a diplomatic outcry, criticism even came from Trump’s predecessor Obama, breaking a silence he had held since leaving office. “President Obama is heartened by the level of engagement taking place in communities around the country,” spokesman Kevin Lewis said, adding that “American values are at stake” and noting Obama rejects faith-based discrimination.
Senior national security officials from the Obama and George W Bush administrations warned in a letter to top Trump cabinet members that the order “will do long-term damage to our national security”. Calling the measure a tragically “unnecessary” move that will fuel violent extremist propaganda, they said it “sent exactly the wrong message to the Muslim community here at home and all over the world: that the US government is at war with them based on their religion.”
Late Monday, a crowd chanted slogans and held banners outside the Supreme Court, which could ultimately rule on the measure. Employees of Alphabet Inc’s Google in San Francisco, Mountain View, Seattle and other cities also held protests. Backed by a sign that said “We are a nation of immigrants,” Sergey Brin, president of Alphabet, said he was outraged by the order. “The US had the courage to take me and my family in as refugees,” he said in a YouTube video of his remarks. – Agencies