Wall Street Journal
By Devlin Barrett
January 31, 2017
Democratic senators attacked attorney general-hopeful Jeff Sessions Tuesday ahead of a committee vote on his nomination, saying he lacked the independence of the recently fired acting attorney general, Sally Yates, who was dismissed Monday for refusing to defend President Donald Trump’s order suspending immigration from certain countries.
The Judiciary Committee is expected to vote Wednesday to forward Mr. Session’s nomination to the full Senate, but the lead-up to the vote underscored how the political debate over the presidential order has intensified and expanded in the last 24 hours. The order signed by Mr. Trump suspends immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations, calling it a needed move to keep terrorists from entering the country.
That order was signed Friday night, prompting confusion for some travelers as immigration authorities tried to interpret and apply the new rules. Thousands of protesters descended on major city airports to demonstrate against the policy change.
On Monday, Ms. Yates told Justice Department lawyers not to defend the law. Within hours, she was fired by Mr. Trump.
White House Fires Acting Attorney General for Defying Immigration Ban
The White House fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates for telling government lawyers not to defend an executive order signed by President Trump suspending immigration from seven countries.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) the senior Democrat on the panel, said Tuesday that Ms. Yates’ statement "took guts.” She added, “That is what an attorney general must be willing and able to do. I have no confidence that Sen. Sessions will do that.’’
In his earlier testimony, Mr. Sessions pledged: “I’m going to follow the laws passed by Congress...The attorney general’s role is to enforce the law.’’
Republicans on the panel, including some who had previously supported Ms. Yates, sharply criticized her move and said the president was right to fire her. “It’s really a shame,’’ said Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas). ”I hope she’s not remembered for this blemish on that long and distinguished career.’’
The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), voiced his frustration with the situation, including what he called the delay in installing Mr. Sessions. "A country without an attorney general, as we saw last night, is a major problem,’’ he said.
Ms. Yates hasn't commented since her firing. People close to her said she wrestled with the issue after the Friday order, particularly because civil-rights advocates quickly went to court seeking to block the executive order and Justice Department lawyers were called on to defend it in court, often with little to no preparation.
Some line attorneys at the Justice Department questioned whether they should be defending the order, unsure of its legality and how the administration planned to enforce the order, these people said.
After her firing, several career Justice Department lawyers privately expressed support for Ms. Yates’ decision, saying they were themselves unsure of the legal issues involved. Part of the challenge, these lawyers said, was that some of the language in the order is vague, and could be read broadly or narrowly.
Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who left the job earlier this month, said Tuesday that she supported Ms. Yates’ “courageous leadership’’ in resisting the Trump order.
“With her decision not to defend the executive order regarding immigration, Sally Yates displayed the fierce intellect, unshakeable integrity, and deep commitment to the rule of law that have characterized her 27 years of distinguished service to the Justice Department under both Democratic and Republican administrations,’’ Ms. Lynch said.
The order freezes the entire U.S. refugee program for four months and bars Syrians from entering as refugees indefinitely. Mr. Trump’s directive cut the number of refugees the U.S. will accept in Fiscal Year 2017 to 50,000, less than half the number that former President Barack Obama called for this year.
It also bars people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the U.S. for at least 90 days after the order takes effect.
And it says the government will continue to process requests from individuals claiming religious persecution, “provided that the religion is a minority religion in the individual’s country,” suggesting the U.S. would admit Christians from Muslim-majority countries.
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