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Acting Attorney General Out After Refusing To Defend Trump Refugee Ban


President Donald Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates this evening. Yates served as deputy attorney general during the Obama administration, and she was leading the Justice Department temporarily until Trump's pick for attorney general, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, was confirmed. Now, this came hours after Yates told Justice Department lawyers not to defend Trump's executive order on immigration and refugees, which is being challenged in federal courts.

NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley is on the line. And Scott, what more can you tell us about what led up to all of this?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, Audie, this was a remarkable series of events beginning this afternoon when the then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates announced that she would not be defending this executive order that the Trump administration had issued just on Friday which puts a temporary hold on the entry of all refugees to the United States as well as travel by residents of seven mostly Muslim nations.

In her message, Sally Yates said her responsibility is to ensure the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible but informed by our best view of what the law is after a consideration of the facts. And she says she was also responsible for ensuring the positions we take in court remain consistent with the institution's solemn obligation to seek justice and stand for what is right. So Sally Yates said as long as she was running the Justice Department, they would not go into court to defend this executive order against the many challenges that have been filed.

Now, we always thought Sally Yates was something of a short-timer. She's a holdover from the Obama administration who was acting attorney general as we await confirmation of Donald Trump's nominee, Jeff Sessions. But her time was perhaps shorter than we thought because the president stepped in this evening, fired Sally Yates and appointed someone to take her place.

CORNISH: So how unusual is it for a president to fire an attorney general?

HORSLEY: Well, the antecedent that is on everyone's minds this evening I think is the Saturday Night Massacre when Richard Nixon fired the attorney general who refused to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who had been brought in to investigate the Watergate crimes. Ultimately Nixon wound up firing several people in the line of succession before Robert Bork, who was the solicitor general, finally did his bidding and did fire Archibald Cox.

This is not the Saturday Night Massacre. This is maybe the Monday Night Mash-up. But this is a striking display of the battle between the new president and his executive order and his insistence that this executive order be carried out and the legal community which in many cases is suspicious of this order.

CORNISH: What's the - who do - who is leading this department now?

HORSLEY: So Donald Trump has appointed someone to take the place of Sally Yates. Dana Boente will be the acting attorney general now pending, again, the confirmation of Jeff Sessions. Jeff Sessions' confirmation has been delayed by Democrats in the Senate, but they don't have the power to delay it indefinitely. So ultimately he will be confirmed as attorney general.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Horsley with the news that President Trump has fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: You're very welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.