STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today the Justice Department is still defending President Trump's executive order on immigration in court. That's the same as yesterday morning, but not without a dramatic turn in the hours in between. The acting attorney general yesterday told the department not to defend an order that temporarily bans visitors from seven majority-Muslim nations and refugees from everywhere. Sally Yates said she was not persuaded that the order is lawful, so President Trump replaced her. With us to talk about this is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson who's on the line. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: Who's Sally Yates? This is surely a name that most Americans had not heard before yesterday.
JOHNSON: Well, she's a holdover from the Obama Justice Department. She'd expected to be on the job just a few more days really until the Senate confirms her successor in Donald Trump's pick. But Sally Yates is not unfamiliar to people inside the Justice Department, she's been a prosecutor there for 27 years, sending to prison a former mayor in her home state of Georgia and also the Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph.
INSKEEP: OK, so a professional prosecutor and a professional at the Justice Department, a career person at the Justice Department who was promoted to this political position under President Obama.
JOHNSON: That's exactly right.
INSKEEP: OK, and what did she say?
JOHNSON: Well, she said she was concerned that Trump's executive order was unlawful, and she cited in a letter to lawyers working on these cases yesterday afternoon some statements made by the administration and surrogates. She wasn't clear, but it seems clear from reading around the lines that she was talking about comments Trump made to Christian broadcasters about giving preference to Christian refugees, and also statements by Rudy Giuliani, a Trump adviser, in which he told Fox News that Trump called him and said he wanted a Muslim ban but wanted to do it legally. Both of those things raised big concerns in Sally Yates' mind about maybe unlawful intent behind this executive order.
INSKEEP: And let's just remind people it has been widely argued by people across the political spectrum that a religious test for getting into the country would be unconstitutional, that would be setting up a state religion. The president has contended this is not that, and she's saying I am not persuaded because of these other statements. And then the president fired her, right?
JOHNSON: Yeah, this all took place in the span of about four hours yesterday, four very dramatic hours. Sally Yates was informed of her firing by the White House via hand-delivered letter to the Justice Department, and almost immediately the president came out with a statement from the White House saying she had betrayed the Department of Justice and was weak on immigration and weak on borders. Very tough talk from the White House.
INSKEEP: Well, let's try to put this in some historical context here. Sally Yates was confirmed in 2015, and there was a senator at the confirmation hearing - amazingly enough, Jeff Sessions, the guy who is in line to be attorney general - who said, are you willing to defy the president if he asks you to do something improper? And she gave an answer that sounded very much like yes, I can do that, I'm sworn to uphold the Constitution. And then Sessions went on to talk about a little bit of history from the Bush administration and an earlier one. Let's give a listen to that.
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JEFF SESSIONS: I remember John Ashcroft as attorney general for Bush, and he's been celebrated for being in - when he was in the hospital they tried to get him to sign a document that dealt with terrorism that he thought went too far, he refused to do so. So I hope that you feel free to say no in the character of John Ashcroft and others who said no to President Nixon on certain issues.
INSKEEP: There was actually an attorney general and an acting attorney general who resigned rather than follow President Nixon. So where does Sally Yates fit into that history if at all, Carrie?
JOHNSON: Well, a lot of comparisons being made overnight to the Saturday Night Massacre, that 1973 firing and mass resignations inside Nixon's Justice Department. That's not entirely apt because Sally Yates was a political holdover on the way out the door already, but certainly she has taken a very public stand here and intentionally. So I'm hearing from sources close to her that she knew very well sending this letter to DOJ last night could cost her her job, in fact it did. Now federal prosecutor Dana Boente, who's been the U.S. attorney in Virginia, is the new acting attorney general for Donald Trump, and he's going to defend that executive order.
INSKEEP: A small but vital point here, you told us last night that the acting attorney general is the last person in the Justice Department who could sign foreign intelligence surveillance warrants to go after possible threats. Is anybody left who can do that now?
JOHNSON: Well, some national security lawyers have analyzed the question overnight. They do believe Dana Boente, the acting AG, can sign those warrants, but it was a source of some concern and research.
INSKEEP: OK, so we're going to continue to cover this dramatic story. Carrie, thanks very much.
JOHNSON: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's our justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.