Unpopularly-elected Donald Trump defended one abuse of power with another, firing acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to defend his failure of a Muslim ban. In an ironic twist, Yates had promised to do just that at her 2015 confirmation hearing, under questioning from none other than Trump Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions.
Acting Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates, a career prosecutor who was elevated to deputy AG by President Obama, ordered Justice Department lawyers not to defend Donald Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim ban in court. In response, Trump announced her firing Monday night in a vicious and partisan statement (via email from The White House):
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. This order was approved as to form and legality by the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel.
Ms. Yates is an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.
It is time to get serious about protecting our country. Calling for tougher vetting for individuals travelling from seven dangerous places is not extreme. It is reasonable and necessary to protect our country.
Tonight, President Trump relieved Ms. Yates of her duties and subsequently named Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to serve as Acting Attorney General until Senator Jeff Sessions is finally confirmed by the Senate, where he is being wrongly held up by Democrat senators for strictly political reasons.
The firing has been dubbed “The Monday Night Massacre,” a reference to the Nixon-era “Saturday Night Massacre” when two top Justice Department officials resigned after they refused to follow President Richard Nixon’s order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor.
Democratic leaders are not taking the firing lying down. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer sounded the alarm over this threat to the independence of the Justice Department in a statement emailed to Shareblue:
The firing of Sally Yates underscores how important it is to have an Attorney General who will stand up to the White House when they are violating the law. Many people have doubts about whether Jeff Sessions can be that person, and the full Senate and the American people should at the very least know exactly how independent he plans to be before voting on him.
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.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi denounced the firing in a statement as well, noting that “What the Trump Administration calls betrayal is an American with the courage to say that the law and the Constitution come first.”
“President Trump’s executive order violates the Constitution, dishonors our values, and weakens the security of the United States,” Pelosi said, adding that “National security experts are warning that the President’s ban will make it harder, not easier to defeat terror.”
In a particularly ironic twist, Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, who will likely become the next attorney general later this week, grilled Yates at her March 2015 confirmation hearing over whether she believed that attorneys general had a duty to say “no” to improper or unlawful presidential orders, even comparing the president to a “CEO”:
SESSIONS: You have to watch out because people will be asking you to do things you just need to say no about. Do you think the Attorney General has a responsibility to say ‘no’ to the president if he asks for something that’s improper? 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?’ But if the views a president wants to execute are unlawful, should the Attorney General, or the Deputy Attorney General, say no?
YATES: Senator, I believe that 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.
SESSIONS: Like any CEO, with a law firm, sometimes the lawyers have to tell the CEO, “Mr. CEO, you can’t do that. Don’t do that. We’ll get us sued. It’s going to be in violation of the law. You’ll regret it. Please.” No matter how headstrong they might be. Do you feel like that’s the duty of the Attorney General’s office?
YATES: I do believe that that’s the duty of the Attorney General’s Office: To fairly and impartially evaluate the law, and to provide the president and the administration with impartial legal advice.
With this new Trump-created crisis, Democrats are asking for the chance to get the same answers from Sessions that he extracted from Yates before he is confirmed. But given Sessions’ troubling civil rights record and official involvement with the Trump presidential campaign, it is unlikely that any of those answers would be reassuring or credible, even if Democrats get the chance to ask the questions.
The larger question is whether other career Justice Department lawyers follow Yates out the door in protest, or try to stand their ground and fight this tide of lawlessness from within. Neither option is very appealing, but in the Trump era, very few are.