US president Donald Trump has fired the acting head of the US Department of Justice, who tonight (Jan. 30) ordered her staff not to defend an executive action to temporarily ban entry to the US for all refugees and for immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Sally Yates, an Obama administration appointee, was leading the department until the confirmation of Trump’s pick for attorney general, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions. Yates has been replaced by Dana Boente, who has been serving as US attorney for the eastern district of Virginia since December 2015. Boente said in a statement that he is “honored to serve President Trump in this role until Senator Sessions is confirmed. I will defend and enforce the laws of our country to ensure that our people and our nation are protected.”
Yates, in a memo sent to her staff, had said the Justice Department would not defend the administration’s executive action to temporarily ban refugees from around the world and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries. This would have left the government without a legal defense in court cases against the executive order.
Arguing that her department’s obligation is “to always seek justice and stand for what is right,” Yates wrote: “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.”
A statement about her replacement, posted to Trump’s Facebook page, specified that the executive order was approved by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Yates had addressed the OLC’s ruling in her statement to staff, explaining:
My role is different from that of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), which, through administrations of both parties, has reviewed Executive Orders for form and legality before they are issued. OLC’s review is limited to the narrow question of whether, in OLC’s view, a proposed Executive Order is lawful on its face and properly drafted. Its review does not take account of statements made by an administration or it surrogates close in time to the issuance of an Executive Order that may bear on the order’s purpose. And importantly, it does not address whether any policy choice embodied in an Executive Order is wise or just.
The White House statement accuses her of having “betrayed” the department by refusing to enforce the order.
“Tonight, President Trump relieved Ms. Yates of her duties and subsequently named Dana Boente” as her replacement, the statement says.
Boente has worked in the criminal section of the Justice Department’s tax division, and was an assistant US attorney in the fraud unit of the eastern district of Virginia. In 2012, he was appointed by former US attorney general Eric Holder to serve a US attorney for the eastern district of Louisiana. He returned to the eastern Virginia office in 2013 as acting US attorney for the district, and dropped the “acting” from his title in 2015 after being nominated by former US president Barack Obama and confirmed by the US Senate.
This story has been updated with additional information from Yates’ and the White House’s statements.