Yates, a holdover from President Barack Obama’s administration, had been running the Justice Department in the early days of the Trump administration while Jeff Sessions has been awaiting confirmation as attorney general. And she announced Monday she was instructing the department not to defend the immigration order in its many court challenges, saying, “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.”
Not only did Trump fire Yates, but the White House statement announcing her firing attacked her personally, calling her “an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration” who “betrayed the Department of Justice.” That’s a highly unusual if not unprecedented statement for a sitting president to make about a personnel change.
While comparisons to the infamous Saturday Night Massacre (in which President Richard Nixon fired the special prosecutor investigating Watergate and the top two Justice Department officials resigned in protest) were being thrown around Twitter, this doesn’t really rise to that level. Yates is an Obama administration holdover who was headed out the door anyway, and she wasn’t fired for investigating the Trump administration.
Furthermore, from a procedural perspective, there’s a strong case that Yates was in the wrong — at least according to how government and the Department of Justice is supposed to work.
Former Justice Department official and Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith points out that Yates’s letter explaining her decision did not assert that the order was unlawful, and indeed confirms that (contra earlier reports) the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which is supposed to vet such things, gave it the thumbs up. If Yates was simply troubled and uncertain about the order despite its OLC approval, rather than affirmatively concluding it was unlawful, Goldsmith argues, she should have simply resigned instead of refusing to defend it.
Still, Yates’s defenders argue that she was standing up for principle and wanted to be on the right side of history. (Senior officials told the New York Times’s Matt Apuzzo that Yates was particularly troubled by President Trump’s past statements targeting Muslims, which convinced her that this policy had religiously discriminatory intent.) It emerged that during Yates’s confirmation hearing, she’d been grilled by Jeff Sessions himself about whether she’d stand up to the president. And from a political perspective, she may have achieved what she wanted, forcing Trump to fire her and contributing further to the chaos of the Trump administration’s early days.
The upshot, though, is that Yates is out and the new acting attorney general, Dana Boente — another Obama appointee who had been US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia — is going to proceed with defending Trump’s order in court.
The day in policy: a confusing order on regulations, more fallout on immigration, more details on a Yemen operation that “went wrong”
When administration officials weren’t trying to shiv each other in the press, they were continuing to make policy and govern the nation — and the effects of their decisions continued to affect lives.
- The White House’s top-billed policy of the day was an executive order signed by President Trump that, they said, would require agencies to scrap two older regulations before creating new ones. Except the order does nothing of the kind — as Brad Plumer points out, the order only requires two old regulations to be “identified,” not eliminated. It seems essentially toothless, and its actual effect may be mainly to create confusion in agencies.
- The fallout of Trump’s immigration order continued to ripple outward. Vox’s Tara Golshan collected stories of several people affected. Customs and Border Protection agents at Dulles airport continued to give lawyers trying to help detainees the cold shoulder, according to Slate. And about 80 doctors, scholars, and staff at the Mayo Clinic and 20 of its patients could be affected by the travel restrictions, per Axios.
- More details emerged about a strike ordered by Trump in Yemen over the weekend from a new NBC News report. The strike killed both a member of SEAL Team Six, which conducted it, and the 8-year-old American citizen daughter of the late al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, US officials confirmed. The Pentagon claims “numerous” civilians also died, and local reports put the death toll even higher. “Almost everything went wrong,” a senior US military official told NBC.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is leaking like crazy
For an administration that hasn’t even been in office two weeks, the Trump administration has seen an astonishing amount of leaks, as Vox’s Yochi Dreazen recently wrote.
And due to the chaos brought on by the immigration order, these leaks have exploded in number, as anonymous administration officials try to cast blame and shiv their rivals in the media. Here are just the most dramatic leaks from the past day.
- In the Washington Post, dueling White House sources argued whether senior policy adviser Stephen Miller or Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was more to blame for this weekend’s chaos. One anonymous White House official gave the Post this remarkable quote about Priebus: “A little bit of under-competence and a slight amount of insecurity can breed some paranoia and backstabbing. … We have to get Reince to relax into the job and become more competent, because he’s seeing shadows where there are no shadows.” (Telling a reporter that doesn’t seem likely to make him less paranoid.)
- The Associated Press reported that Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson “have told associates that they were not aware of details” of the immigration order until about when Trump signed it. Kelly was in the process of being briefed on the order when a staffer saw Trump signing it on television, according to the New York Times.
- Kelly, whose silence throughout much of the weekend was conspicuous, sounds particularly unhappy with how things have been going — the Wall Street Journal reported that he has “clashed with the White House” over their unsuccessful effort to install immigration hard-liner Kris Kobach as his deputy.
- The Trump administration has been claiming that the order’s details were vetted with top congressional staff, but congressional leaders professed to know nothing about it. A new Politico report sheds some light on why — House Judiciary staffers had helped Trump aides draft it, but they signed nondisclosure agreements and didn’t tell their bosses (which raises some pretty troubling questions about the separation of powers).
- Jared Kushner has often been portrayed as the voice of reason for the Trump White House, but a Vanity Fair report describes a frustrating start to the administration for him: Despite his personal efforts to broker a meeting between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, a Trump tweet ruined things and led to the cancellation of the meeting.
- The foreign policy team has been leaking like a sieve too. An intelligence official claimed to Foreign Policy that Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon was “running a cabal, almost like a shadow [National Security Council],” without much of a paper trail. But the New York Times reported that, according to people close to Bannon, he was merely trying to help compensate for Michael Flynn’s “stumbling performance as national security adviser.” (Some negative anonymously sourced anecdotes asserting Flynn has gotten on Trump’s nerves lately also made it into the piece.)
All in all, then, things sound like they’re going great.