Trump Fires Acting AG For Stunning Insubordination
For a couple of hours, the big news on Monday evening was that Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, announced publicly that the Justice Department would not defend President Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees. Yates penned a letter late in the day to DOJ lawyers telling them to let challenges to the White House order go unanswered.
“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.
To say that such a letter is unusual would be an understatement. Not since 1973 has the head of the Justice Department defied the president in such clear and unambiguous terms. In that instance, Attorney General Elliot Richardson refused to obey President Richard Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox and was asked to resign as a result.
While the circumstances in 2017 are dissimilar to the “Saturday Night Massacre” of ’73 in many ways, Yates’s fate was that of Richardson’s. Only hours after Yates denounced Trump’s order, she was given a handwritten note: “The president has removed you from the office of Deputy Attorney General of the United States.”
Trump replaced Yates with U.S. Attorney Dana Boente, who said he would defend the president’s executive order banning immigrants from seven dangerous countries for 90 days.
In a statement, the White House said Yates had “betrayed” the Justice Department with a politically-motivated objection to the president’s order.
“Ms. Yates is an Obama administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration,” the statement said.
Democrats quickly portrayed Trump’s decision to fire Yates as a “chilling” triumph of politics over the law – which is, of course, the exact opposite of what actually happened.
The truth is that the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel had already approved the executive order with respect to its legality; Yates’s defiance was purely political. She made this clear in her letter, which made reference to earlier statements the White House had made and consternation over whether or not the order was “wise or just.” This wasn’t about the law; this was about Yates’s personal beliefs and her allegiance to Barack Obama.
It is true that the Justice Department must have some degree of independence and autonomy, but that doesn’t mean the president should sit idly by and watch his attorney general undermine his authority in the absence of legitimate cause. There was no such cause in this case, and Yates deserved to be fired.