President Donald Trump fired acting US Attorney General Sally Yates after she defied him on his controversial executive order on immigrants and refugees, according to a statement White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer issued Monday night.
"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 read in part.
Yates — an appointee of former President Barack Obama — told the Justice Department earlier Monday not to defend Trump's executive order.
Yates, who was set to be replaced by Trump's appointee Jeff Sessions once he's confirmed, denounced the executive order in a letter to Justice Department lawyers, saying it may not be lawful.
"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 said in the letter.
"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's executive action, authorized on Friday, calls for a temporary halt on all refugees coming to the US, and bars the entry of foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries. The order has sparked protests in streets and airports across the country, and has been roundly condemned from members of both parties. Trump spent the day Monday vigorously defending the order.
Trump criticized Yates in a tweet Monday evening:
The Democrats are delaying my cabinet picks for purely political reasons. They have nothing going but to obstruct. Now have an Obama A.G.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 31, 2017
Yates's directive was generally a symbolic one and would only have been enforced until she left office.
Yates was appointed by former Democratic President Barack Obama.
The White House dismissed her comments as rhetoric and said Trump acted within his presidential powers.
A new acting AG Dana Boente was sworn in immediately.
US Allies worried
There was criticism from within the U.S. government. U.S. State Department officials circulated a draft memo of dissent, saying Trump's move would hurt America's image abroad and inflame anti-American sentiment.
Separately, U.S. officials said the department received multiple cables from U.S. embassies over the weekend reporting foreign dissatisfaction at the order.
The Iraqi parliament voted to ask the country's government to retaliate against the United States, putting at risk cooperation in the fight against Islamic State.
A government official in Baghdad said Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari plans to meet the U.S. ambassador soon to express dismay at Trump's decision.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson joined a chorus of concern expressed by U.S. allies, ranging from Iraq to Germany.
"This is, of course, a highly controversial policy, which has caused unease and, I repeat, this is not an approach that this government would take," Johnson told parliament.
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in London and other British cities on Monday to demonstrate against the ban. People, some holding placards reading "No to Racism, No to Trump" and "Dump Trump," staged a protest outside the Prime Minister's Downing Street residence.