Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, a holdover from President Barack Obama's administration, ordered Justice Department lawyers Monday not to defend President Donald Trump's executive order restricting immigration.
The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel signed off on Trump's order last week, but Yates — who stayed on as acting attorney general pending the confirmation of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama — said the office's reviews don't "address whether any policy choice embodied in an Executive Order is wise or just."
"My responsibility is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible, but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts," Yates wrote in a memo to the department's 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," she wrote. The memo came to light only a few hours after Obama broke his post-presidential silence in a statement backing protesters demonstrating against the executive order.
Obama "fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion," the statement said. Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the Immigrants' Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the directive "a remarkable but welcome development."
The directive "sends a powerful message that there's something very wrong with a Muslim ban," Gelernt said.
But Stephen Miller, a senior policy adviser to Trump and a major architect of the travel ban, said, "It's sad that our politics have been politicized, that you have people refusing to enforce our laws."
In an interview Monday night on MSNBC's "For the Record," Miller said it was "sadder still that you have a situation where the previous administration — and I don't want to bring up the past — lifted, removed, eliminated whole sections of immigration law, and it wasn't even considered by many in the media and many in the administration to be matter of controversy."
Yates’ memo would appear to represent the most serious rebellion by the Justice Department since the "Saturday Night Massacre" of October 1973, when Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than carry out President Richard Nixon's order to fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor.