President Trump fired his acting attorney general on Monday after she defiantly refused to defend his immigration executive order, accusing the Democratic holdover of trying to obstruct his agenda for political reasons.
Taking action in an escalating crisis for his 10-day-old administration, Mr. Trump declared that Sally Q. Yates had “betrayed” the administration, the White House said in a statement.
The president appointed Dana J. Boente, United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to serve as acting attorney general until Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama is confirmed.
Ms. Yates’s decision confronted the president with a stinging challenge to his authority and laid bare a deep divide at the Justice Department, within the diplomatic corps and elsewhere in the government over the wisdom of his order.
“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,” Ms. Yates wrote in a letter to Justice Department lawyers.
The extraordinary legal standoff capped a tumultuous day in which the White House confronted an outpouring of dissent over Mr. Trump’s temporary ban on entry visas for people from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, went so far as to warn State Department officials that they should leave their jobs if they did not agree with Mr. Trump’s agenda, after State Department officials circulated a so-called dissent memo on the order.
“These career bureaucrats have a problem with it?” Mr. Spicer said. “They should either get with the program or they can go.”
Ms. Yates’s decision effectively overruled a finding by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which had already approved the executive order “with respect to form and legality.”
Ms. Yates said her determination in deciding not to defend the order was broader, however, and included questions not only about the order’s lawfulness, but also whether it was a “wise or just” policy. She also alluded to unspecified statements that the White House had made before signing the order, which she factored into her review.
Dana J. Boente, United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia
Mr. Trump responded to the letter with a post on Twitter at 7:45 p.m., complaining that the Senate’s delay in confirming his Cabinet nominees had resulted in leaving Ms. Yates in place. “The Democrats are delaying my cabinet picks for purely political reasons,” Mr. Trump said. “They have nothing going but to obstruct. Now have an Obama A.G.”
One of Mr. Trump’s top advisers condemned the decision as an illustration of the politicization of the legal system. “It’s sad that our politics have become so politicized that you have people refusing to enforce our laws,” Stephen Miller, the senior policy adviser, said in a televised interview.
Mr. Trump has the authority to fire Ms. Yates, but as the top Senate-confirmed official at the Justice Department, she is the only one authorized to sign foreign surveillance warrants, an essential function at the department.
“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,” she wrote.
Ms. Yates’s letter transforms the confirmation of Mr. Trump’s attorney general nominee, Mr. Sessions, into a referendum on the immigration order. Action in the Senate could come as early as Tuesday.
The decision by the acting attorney general is a remarkable rebuke by a government official to a sitting president that recalls the dramatic “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973, when President Richard M. Nixon fired his attorney general and deputy attorney general for refusing to dismiss the special prosecutor in the Watergate case.
Ms. Yates, a career prosecutor, is different because she is a holdover from President Barack Obama’s administration, where she served as deputy attorney general. She agreed to Mr. Trump’s request to stay on as acting attorney general until Mr. Sessions is confirmed to be attorney general.
At the State Department, which is also without a leader, career officials are circulating a dissent memo that argues that closing the borders to more than 200 million people to weed out a handful of would-be terrorists would not make the nation safer and might instead deepen the threat. Mr. Spicer countered that the effects of the ban had been exaggerated and that it would help fulfill Mr. Trump’s vow to protect the country.
Taken together, the developments were a stark confrontation between the new president, who is moving swiftly to upend years of policies, and a federal bureaucracy still struggling with the jolting change of power in Washington. There is open hostility to Mr. Trump’s ideas in large pockets of the government, and deep frustration among those enforcing the visa ban that the White House announced the order without warning or consulting them.