Acting Attorney General Sally Yates shot to the heart of the debate over how President Donald Trump is handling the first few weeks of his administration after Trump fired her in an extraordinary public showdown Monday.
Yates publicly questioned the constitutionality of his refugee and immigration ban and refused to defend it in court, drawing wrath from the administration — Trump called it a betrayal of the Justice Department — and plaudits from her former boss.
Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Yates showed "courageous leadership" in insisting on following the Constitution.
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"With her decision not to defend the executive order regarding immigration, Sally Yates displayed the fierce intellect, unshakable integrity, and deep commitment to the rule of law that have characterized her 27 years of distinguished service to the Department of Justice under both Democratic and Republican administrations," Lynch said in a statement.
Bob Ferguson, the state of Washington attorney general suing the federal government over the travel order, agreed with her decision.
"You've got a duty to follow the law and go where the law takes you," he said on MSNBC Tuesday.
The clash Monday night between Trump and Sally Yates, a career prosecutor and Democratic appointee, laid bare the growing discord and dissent surrounding an executive order that halted the entire U.S. refugee program and banned all entries from seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days. The firing, in a written statement released just hours after Yates went public with her concerns, also served as a warning to other administration officials that Trump is prepared to terminate those who refuse to carry out his orders.
Yates' refusal to defend the executive order was largely symbolic given that Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump's pick for attorney general, will almost certainly defend the policy once he's sworn in.
He had been expected to be confirmed Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but lengthy speeches from Democratic members threatened to push the vote into Wednesday. After he passes the first hurdle, Sessions could be approved within days by the full Senate.
Yet the firing reflected the mounting conflict over the executive order, as administration officials have moved to distance themselves from the policy and even some of Trump's top advisers have made clear that they were not consulted on its implementation.
As protests erupted at airports across the globe, and as legal challenges piled up in courthouses, Yates directed agency attorneys not to defend the executive order. She said in a memo Monday she was not convinced it was lawful or consistent with the agency's obligation "to stand for what is right."
Trump soon followed with a statement accusing Yates of having "betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States." He named longtime federal prosecutor Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, as Yates' replacement. Boente was sworn in privately late Monday, the White House said, and rescinded Yates's directive.
The chain of events bore echoes of the Nixon-era "Saturday Night Massacre," when the attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned rather than follow an order to fire a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal. The prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was fired by the solicitor general.
Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration who was the top federal prosecutor in Atlanta and later became Loretta Lynch's deputy, was not alone in her misgivings.
At least three top national security officials — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Rex Tillerson, who is awaiting confirmation to lead the State Department — have told associates they were not aware of details of the directive until around the time Trump signed it. Leading intelligence officials were also left largely in the dark, according to U.S. officials.
But Kelly denied reports Tuesday that he had been out of the loop in the White House planning for the immigration restrictions.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that despite White House assurances that congressional leaders were consulted, he learned about the order from the media.
In a video of Yates' deputy attorney general confirmation hearing in 2015, Sessions is shown questioning her about her stance should then-President Barack Obama require her to carry out "unlawful" views.
"You have to watch out because people will be asking you to do things and you need to say no. You think the attorney general has the responsibility to say no to the President if he asks for something that's improper?" Sessions asks.
"A lot of people have defended the Lynch nomination, for example by saying 'well, he appoints somebody who's going to execute his views, what's wrong with that?'" he asks, referring to Obama's nomination a year earlier of Loretta Lynch as Attorney General.
"But if the views the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?"
Yates tells Sessions: "Senator, I believe the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution and to give their independent legal advice to the president."
Yates on Monday said that she had reviewed the policy and concluded that it was at odds with the Justice Department's mission. She said that though other lawyers in the department had reviewed the order, their review had not addressed whether it was "wise or just."
"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," Yates wrote in a letter.
Trump said the order had been "approved" by Justice Department lawyers. However, the department has said the Office of Legal Counsel review was limited to whether the order was properly drafted, but did not address broader policy questions.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer challenged those opposed to the measure to resign.
"They should either get with the program or they can go," Spicer said.
Alberto Gonzales, attorney general under George W. Bush, said on CNN that the president needs to get "diverse" views from members of his administration, but that he is still entitled to have his lawful orders carried out.
The blowback underscored Trump's tenuous relationship with his own national security advisers, many of whom he met for the first time during the transition.
Mattis, who stood next to Trump during Friday's signing ceremony, is said to be particularly incensed. A senior U.S. official said Mattis, along with Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford, was aware of the general concept of Trump's order but not the details. Tillerson has told the president's political advisers that he was baffled over not being consulted on the substance of the order.
U.S. officials and others with knowledge of the Cabinet's thinking insisted on anonymity in order to disclose the officials' private views.
Despite his public defense of the policy, the president has privately acknowledged flaws in the rollout, according to a person with knowledge of his thinking. But he's also blamed the media — his frequent target — for what he believes are reports exaggerating the dissent and the number of people actually affected.
After a chaotic weekend during which some U.S. legal permanent residents were detained at airports, some agencies were moving swiftly to try to clean up after the White House.
Homeland Security, the agency tasked with implementing much of the refugee ban, clarified that customs and border agents should allow legal residents to enter the country. The Pentagon was trying to exempt Iraqis who worked alongside the U.S. and coalition forces from the 90-day ban on entry from the predominantly Muslim countries.
"There are a number of people in Iraq who have worked for us in a partnership role, whether fighting alongside us or working as translators, often doing so at great peril to themselves," said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers in Trump's party sought to distance themselves from the wide-ranging order.
While Spicer said "appropriate committees and leadership offices" on Capitol Hill were consulted, GOP lawmakers said their offices had no hand in drafting the order and no briefings from the White House on how it would work.
"I think they know that it could have been done in a better way," Corker said of the White House.
NBC's Asher Klein contributed to this report.