USA First Look

Travel ban pushback: Trump fires acting Justice Department head

President Trump fired Sally Yates, the acting US attorney general, after she refused to defend his travel ban in court.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates listens as FBI Director James Comey speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in July 2015.
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Tensions between President Trump and those opposed to his executive order on immigration mounted Monday evening, resulting in the termination of the acting attorney general after she publicly raised concerns about the order’s legality.

Sally Yates, a career prosecutor and acting attorney general left over from the Obama administration, directed Justice Department employees to disobey the order, noting that she believed it lacked legal merit and clashed with core American values.

"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," Ms. Yates wrote in a Monday memo.

Mr. Trump’s executive order, signed into action Friday, bars immigrants from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen from entering the United States. It also places a four-month-long ban on new refugees. Critics say he's making good on campaign promises to instate a “Muslim ban.”  The administration says it's fulfilling a promise to make American safer. 

Trump fired Yates hours after she spoke out, sending a message to other administration employees who may seek to defy his orders. He said that she had "betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States."’

Her refusal to comply comes largely as a symbolic resistance to the order. The Senate expects to vote on Trump’s choice for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, this week. If confirmed, it is likely that Mr. Sessions would comply with the directive.

While it’s uncommon for Justice Department officials to publicly break with the executive branch, the controversial nature of the ban has stirred fears and serious opposition across the country, making Yates far from alone in her concerns.

Thousands of protesters and slews of Democratic leaders gathered at several airports around the nation this weekend to decry the order. A federal judge in New York eventually called for a temporary stay on the ban late Saturday. Several hundred green card and visa holders from the banned nations have since been allowed to return to the US.

Many were detained for hours over the weekend, culminating in a logistical nightmare as immigration officials tried to interpret the new order.

But some in Trump’s own inner circle have also raised concerns with the order’s hasty rollout. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, and Rex Tillerson, who is awaiting confirmation to lead the State Department, all told sources close to them they had not received detailed information about the orders until Trump signed them Friday. GOP lawmakers say they were not consulted in drafting the orders, and some note that the logistics could have been handled with more nuance.

Trump also demoted Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Daniel Ragsdale later Monday night. He will return to his previous position as deputy director, while Thomas Homan, the agency’s executive associate director, will take the lead role.

No explanation was given for the move.

White House officials have made it clear that resisting the order will not be an option open to other administration employees.

"These career bureaucrats have a problem with it?” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at Monday’s daily briefing. “I think that they should either get with the program or they can go."

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.