President Donald Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates Monday night, after Yates ordered Justice Department lawyers earlier in the day 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 press 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 has named Dana Boente, US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, as acting attorney general. Boente told The Washington Post that he will agree to enforce the immigration order.
Yates had ordered Justice Department not to defend President Trump's immigration order temporarily banning entry into the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from around the world, declaring in a memo that she is not convinced the 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".
"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," Yates wrote. She wrote that "for as long as I am the Acting Attorney General, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defence of the Executive Order, unless and until I become convinced that it is appropriate to do so."
Yates is a holdover from the Obama administration, but the move nonetheless marks a stunning dissent to the president's directive from someone who would be on the front lines of implementing it.
Also Monday, State Department diplomats circulated various drafts of a memo objecting to Trump's order, which was issued Friday. The document is destined for what's known as the department's Dissent Channel, which was set up during the Vietnam War as a way for diplomats to signal to senior leadership their disagreement on foreign policy decisions. More than 100 diplomats have signed the memo, which argues that the immigration ban will not deter attacks on American soil but will generate ill will toward US citizens.
What will happen next is unclear. A Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said those who would normally defend the order under Yates's authority can no longer do so.
Yates will probably be replaced soon by Sen Jeff Sessions (R-Ala), Trump's attorney general nominee, who could be confirmed as early as Thursday or Friday. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider his nomination Tuesday, and the entire Senate must wait one day before voting.
A spokeswoman for Sessions declined to comment. A White House spokeswoman did not immediately return an email from The Washington Post seeking comment.
White House domestic policy adviser Stephen Miller said on MSNBC that Yates's decision was "a further demonstration of how politicized our legal system has become".
"It's sad that our politics have become so politicized that you have people refusing to enforce our laws," Miller said.
A Justice Department official familiar with the matter said Yates felt she was in an "impossible situation" and had been struggling with what to do about a measure she did not consider lawful.
A Justice official confirmed over the weekend that the department's office of legal counsel had been asked to review the measure to determine if it was "on its face lawful and properly drafted."
Yates's memo came as civil rights lawyers and others across the country increased the pressure on Trump on Monday to dial back the ban - filing or threatening to file legal challenges to the executive order as they worked to determine if people were still being improperly denied entry or detained.
The defiant legal conclusion from the country's top law enforcement official will surely boost their arguments. Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, who worked on one of the legal challenges, said, "It sends a very strong message that there's something very wrong with the Muslim ban." (See: Donald Trump's immigration ban halted by court for a week). Just days after stepping down from office, former president Barack Obama weighed in through a spokesman, seeming to back those demonstrating against Trump's decree and declaring his opposition to "discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion". (See: Obama breaks silence early, urges citizens to protest visa ban)
According to State Department statistics, about 90,000 people received nonimmigrant or immigrant visas in fiscal year 2015 from the seven countries affected by Trump's executive order.