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Trump fires acting AG for not defending immigration order

WASHINGTON -- The legal morass created by President Donald Trump's immigration order deepened Monday, as the government's top lawyer instructed Justice Department attorneys not to defend the policy in court -- an extraordinary move reflecting the...

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U.S. Attorney Sally Yates talks during a panel discussion between top Atlanta women executives at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in Atlanta, Georgia, on Tuesday March 26, 2013. (Phil Skinner/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
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WASHINGTON - The legal morass created by President Donald Trump’s immigration order deepened Monday, as the government’s top lawyer instructed Justice Department attorneys not to defend the policy in court - an extraordinary move reflecting the deep divisions the order has caused within the government.
Trump responded by firing her.
Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama administration holdover who was serving until Trump’s nominee was installed, said in a letter released to reporters late Monday that she questioned the legality of Trump’s moves to block refugees and temporarily ban entry for citizens from seven Muslim nations.
“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 the letter, which was published by news agencies. “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.”
Trump responded with a White House statement hours later that called her “weak on borders and very weak on immigration.”
“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,” the statement said.
“Tonight, President Trump has 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 statement added.
Boente was appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia by President Barack Obama in 2013. Boente said in an interview with the Washington Post that he would enforce the immigration order.
There have been only a handful of instances in U.S. history of top Justice Department officials publicly breaking with the White House.
The most famous example was in 1973, when then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy resigned rather than obey President Richard Nixon’s order to fire a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.
The incident, which became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” was a public relations disaster and is seen as a turning point in Nixon's administration.
Yates’ firing is likely to not only heighten the political tension but also create additional problems. To begin with, Yates’ doubts about the legality and wisdom of Trump’s order are now on the public record and almost certain to be cited by lawyers challenging Trump’s action in future cases.
In addition, Yates was the only person in the department currently authorized to sign wiretapping warrants in foreign espionage cases involving the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Only a person confirmed by the Senate for one of three top Justice Department positions can legally perform that job, Justice Department officials said. Her departure could create a hole in the government’s ability to pursue important national security cases, at least until Sessions is sworn into office. He is likely to be confirmed within a week, but Senate Democrats have been trying to slow the process.

“Get with the program”
For a third day Monday, immigration attorneys at major airports played a watchdog role in checking for compliance with federal court rulings that curbed the sweeping order Trump signed Friday. The lawyers reported no new deportations under the order, but said there were still cases where new arrivals weren’t given access to attorneys as one judge has ordered and that authorities had yet to release a full list of detainees.
A chorus of prominent voices, including Obama, criticized the ban as ill-conceived and un-American. A draft letter of dissent reportedly backed by dozens of State Department personnel was leaked Monday. And the Council on American Islamic Relations, a nationwide Muslim advocacy group, filed a lawsuit arguing that Trump’s order is unconstitutional in its singling out of Muslims, the latest of some 30 legal challenges.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed such concerns at a briefing Monday, saying that “the system worked well” and that the airport snags affected only 109 people out of more than 300,000 travelers. Spicer offered no reassuring words to officials with concerns about the ban, saying that dissenters like the career diplomats speaking out at the State Department can “either get with the program or they can go.”
In a statement issued through a spokesman, Obama gave his tacit approval to the thousands of protesters whose mass mobilization against Trump is drawing comparisons to the activism of the Vietnam War era. Crowds of demonstrators have gathered outside of courthouses and filled airport arrivals halls - even in heavily Trump-voting states such as Texas and Kansas.
Trump's directive Friday put a 120-day hold on allowing refugees into the country, an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria and a 90-day ban on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Trump has defended the order as an extra layer of protection against would-be foreign attackers.
Prominent national security strategists have said the hostile anti-Muslim tone works against U.S. counterterrorism goals, angering allies such as Iraq and giving credence to extremists’ recruitment line that the United States is at war with Islam.
Lukman Faily, who served for years as the Iraqi ambassador to the United States but no longer holds a diplomatic passport, said he’d been informed by U.S. officials that he, too, was barred under the order from returning to America. In a phone interview from Baghdad, Faily said the order only worsened tensions that were already simmering from Trump’s earlier remarks about taking Iraq’s oil.
An Iraqi parliamentary committee voted Monday to ask the prime minister to sign a reciprocal order restricting access to Iraq for U.S. citizens. Faily said the move shows how upset Iraqis are to be included in the ban when they’re working in tandem with U.S. forces to fight the Islamic State.

Legal action
Meanwhile, Washington state will be the first to take on the executive order, announcing an effort to sue in federal court. Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the lawsuit would include constitutional claims, including allegations that Trump's order violates the equal protection clause and the First Amendment.
Technology companies Amazon.com and Expedia, both of which are based in the Seattle area, will support the state's suit, Ferguson said.
Several other state attorneys general, including those from California and New York, have said they are considering whether to take their own legal action.
Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation on Monday seeking to block Trump's order, but the measures were unlikely to advance without support from Trump's fellow Republicans. Democrats in the U.S. Senate tried to force a vote on a bill to rescind the order, but were blocked by a Republican lawmaker. Even if a bill advanced, it would be unlikely that Trump would sign it.

Reuters and the Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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