President Donald Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates Monday night, hours after she ordered Justice Department lawyers to stop defending his executive order barring travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, according to a White House statement.
Trump named Dana Boente, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, as Yates’ replacement until the president’s pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), is confirmed, according to the statement.
“The acting attorney general, Sally Yates, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States,” the statement said. “This order was approved as to form and legality by the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel.
In another move, announced Monday night in a statement by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Trump named Thomas Homan as acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Homan, executive associate director of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, replaces Daniel Ragsdale, a holdover from the Obama administration. Ragsdale will continue as the deputy director of ICE.
Kelly’s statement gave no reason for the change.
Yates, a career federal prosecutor, wrote earlier Monday that she must ensure the Justice Department’s position is both “legally defensible” and “consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.”
Her memo to department lawyers said, “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.”
Boente quickly rescinded Yates’ guidance and directed Justice Department attorneys “to defend the lawful orders of our President,” according to a separate White House statement.
The White House statement on Yates’ firing noted her place in the Obama administration and described her as “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”
In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Yates’ firing “underscores how important it is to have an Attorney General who will stand up to the White House when they are violating the law . . . 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.”
Trump sought earlier Monday to blame the Delta computer outage, protesters and the “tears of Senator Schumer” for weekend chaos at airports following issuance of the order.
He and his aides said national security was their priority, and White House press secretary Sean Spicer at a briefing condemned the uproar as being “blown out of proportion.”
Opponents in the Democratic and Republican parties and at mass demonstrations nationwide said the travel ban amounts to a religious test.
Spicer elaborated on a Trump tweet by saying 109 people were held for questioning out of 325,000 who traveled to the United States from other countries in a 24-hour period.
“It’s a shame that people were inconvenienced, but at the end of the day we’re talking about a couple hours,” Spicer said of those stopped at airports. Detainees included a Stony Brook University graduate student, who was released on Sunday.
The press secretary said securing the nation is the president’s foremost goal: “We’re going to put the safety of Americans first. We’re not going to wait and react.”
Trump’s executive order, signed Friday afternoon, indefinitely bars Syrian refugees, suspends the entry of all other refugees for 120 days and bans citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries that Trump called “sources of terror” for 90 days.
Delta Air Lines said a computer failure disrupted operations Sunday night. The company said in an advisory early Monday that its systems had returned to normal, but there were more flight cancellations.
Demonstrators gathered by the thousands at Kennedy and other airports to denounce Trump’s travel ban as discriminatory and send the message that immigrants should be welcomed.
Trump in his tweet insulted Schumer, who grew teary-eyed Sunday at a Manhattan news conference in which he called the executive action “mean-spirited and un-American.”
Monday afternoon, Schumer called for a vote on legislation by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) to rescind Trump’s executive order.
Senate Republicans wouldn’t allow the vote.
Over the weekend, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) were among the Republicans critical of the ban. They called it a “self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism.”
Also Monday, Spicer told reporters that Trump spoke by phone with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to express his condolences over Sunday’s deadly attack on a Quebec City mosque.
The shooting is a reminder of what the Trump administration wants to be “proactive rather than reactive when it comes to our nation’s safety and security,” Spicer said.
The New York Immigration Coalition said Monday the number of travelers held for questioning was “as high as 52” early Sunday, but all those detained over the weekend have been released.
Volunteer lawyers working with the coalition at Kennedy Airport said they have represented 44 people in connection with the travel ban. Of the 44, two were sent back to Sudan and Iran, and both of them had visas, the lawyers said.
Of the 42 people who were released, one was a refugee from Syria, the lawyers said.
With Tom Brune, Chau Lam and The Washington Post