President Donald Trump, the former TV reality star, has never said “You’re fired” like this.
His decision Monday night to oust acting Attorney General Sally Yates heightens the drama over his deplorable executive action on immigration. Trump’s move is petulant and unsettling, especially for Americans with long memories. That said, amateur historians rolling out comparisons to Richard Nixon’s 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” — the firing of his attorney general over Watergate — are overwrought.
We don’t know how this confrontation will end, but we’re certain we know where it is headed: to a cluster of federal courts. That’s where the Trump administration will attempt to defend the president’s overly broad order temporarily halting the country’s refugee program and banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days. The countries are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Trump’s sweeping directive, signed Friday, was intended to protect the country from terrorism, but it’s deeply problematic and arguably unconstitutional. It was rolled out too quickly, without adequate time to debate its merits or explain the scope. The Associated Press reports that at least three top national security officials — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Rex Tillerson, who is awaiting confirmation to lead the State Department — have told associates they were not aware of details of the directive until around the time Trump signed it.
Trump said he acted quickly because he couldn’t afford to give the “bad dudes” notice that the rules of entering the U.S. were changing.
Our verdict on the rollout: You botched this and need to fix it quickly.
One problem with his order was that it swept up legal U.S. residents — green-card holders — in its web. On Sunday the administration backed away from that mistake.
The rest of the executive order was no better. It needlessly ensnared travelers en route to the U.S., creating scenes of airport chaos. If designed to root out would-be terrorists, it was haphazard in the choice of countries included. The worst component is its inclusion of a de facto religious test: When refugees are again admitted, the order gives preferences to those who belong to a minority in their country and have been persecuted for their religion — in other words, it would prioritize Christians refugees over Muslims. America shouldn’t admit immigrants according to their faiths. There are better, more principled ways to manage the nation’s immigration system and defend against terror.
Cue the legal battle. With travelers denied entry — they included at least one Iraqi refugee who acted as an interpreter for the U.S. military — lawyers went to work challenging the ban. A federal judge in Brooklyn issued a temporary stay on deportations Saturday night; judges in other cities made comparable rulings.
On Monday, Yates — a career prosecutor temporarily running the Justice Department — defied her boss, the president, by stating that she was unconvinced his executive order is legal. She said she would refuse to defend it in court. Her decision, while brave and principled, was also symbolic rather than practical, and unsurprising given her politics.
Yates is a holdover from the Obama administration, a caretaker until Trump’s choice for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is confirmed by the Senate. Until then, Trump put a Republican in the job, Dana Boente, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. He rescinded Yates’ order.
It’s understandable Yates would refuse to take up a case she wouldn’t like, and it’s understandable Trump would replace her for being insubordinate. That he did it with charged language — the White House said she “betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States” — well, that was unnecessary and distasteful, but also unsurprising given the president’s penchant for hyperbole.
Back in ‘73, Nixon fired his attorney general and deputy attorney general for refusing to dump the Watergate special prosecutor. Watergate was a constitutional crisis in the making. Trump’s immigration debacle is something different. Partly it’s a reflection of Trump’s newness to the job. Other new presidents have made some big mistakes. But there is something especially disturbing here: a warning to Americans, and to the world, that Trump’s impetuous nature and lack of governing experience are a combustible brew.
As for the specifics of Trump’s poorly conceived executive action, ideally he pulls it back and overhauls it. More likely, the courts will decide.