Donald Trump has fired his acting attorney general after she told justice department lawyers not to defend his executive order banning travel for people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
The White House said on Monday that Sally Yates had “betrayed” the department by refusing to enforce a legal order “designed to protect the citizens of the United States”.
She will be replaced by Dana Boente, US attorney for the eastern district of Virginia, to serve as acting attorney general until Senator Jeff Sessions – an anti-immigration hardliner accused of failing to defend civil rights – is confirmed by the Senate.
As the country’s acting top law enforcement official, Yates, who was appointed by Barack Obama, had control over the justice department’s immigration litigation office, which has handled the federal complaints filed against Trump’s order on behalf of the administration since his new policy was announced on Friday.
“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 a letter to justice department lawyers. “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’s action earned praise from immigration activists and Democrats but, just three hours later, Trump moved to oust her.
A statement from the White House press secretary’s office said: “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.”
Trump had “relieved Ms Yates of her duties,” it added, and Boente will take over until Sessions’ confirmation by the Senate, “where he is being wrongly held up by Democrat senators for strictly political reasons”.
The release quoted Boente as saying: “I am 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.”