House Democrats are wasting no time in denouncing President Trump for firing the nation's top law enforcer after she refused to carry out his directives barring refugees and those traveling from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country.
The White House said former acting Attorney General Sally Yates "betrayed" the Justice Department at the threat of national security. She was ousted late Monday night.
But Democrats see a more sinister motive, warning that Trump is adopting a tyrannical approach that politicizes the Justice Department and will discourage federal employees from upholding their constitutional duties across all agencies.
The lawmakers are comparing Yates's firing to President Nixon's 1973 purge of an independent prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal. The ouster of Archibald Cox sparked the resignation of two top administration officials — Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus — in an episode known as the "Saturday Night Massacre."
“President Trump has commenced a course of conduct that is Nixonian in its design and execution and threatens the long-vaunted independence of the Justice Department," said Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
"If dedicated government officials deem his directives to be unlawful and unconstitutional, he will simply fire them as if government is a reality show."
He is hardly alone. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hailed Yates's "courage" and accused Trump of acting recklessly "to get the answer he wants." Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), whose district is heavy with federal workers, said the firing represents "an alarming step for an administration already raising serious questions about its competence to govern." And Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyBiden signs four bills aimed at helping veterans The Hill's Morning Report - Ins and outs: Powell renominated at Fed, Parnell drops Senate bid On The Money — Biden sticks with Powell despite pressure MORE (D-Vt.) warned that Trump has set a "dangerous" precedent in ousting an official who simply disregarded an order that "is very likely unconstitutional."
“President Trump has now put his Cabinet on notice: if you adhere to your oath of office to defend the Constitution, you risk your job," said Leahy, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee.
The comments came at the end of a tumultuous day in Washington, where the debate was largely centered around Trump's new unilateral actions on immigration. Signed Friday, the executive order bars travelers from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia for 90 days; blocks refugees from all countries for 120 days; and bans Syrian refugees indefinitely.
The impact was immediate, stranding hundreds of travelers around the globe over the weekend and sparking numerous protests in airports and cities across the country.
Yates, a long-time Justice Department official who served as President Obama's deputy attorney general, responded Monday by issuing a memo to agency officials saying the order is not legally defensible.
Trump's response was swift: He fired her hours later and installed Dana Boente, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, in her place.
"Ms. Yates is an Obama administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration,” the White House said in a statement. “It is time to get serious about protecting our country.”
Boente quickly revoked Yates's directive just before midnight.
Democrats say their concerns transcend politics. They're warning that firing Yates before a successor is confirmed by the Senate creates a national security vacuum because she alone has the authority to approve requests with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA.
"Terminating the only Senate-confirmed official at the Department of Justice who can sign FISA warrants simply because the President disagrees with her interpretation of the law is reckless and shortsighted, and it makes our nation less safe," Hoyer said.
Trump's nominee to head the Justice Department, Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPress: For Trump endorsement: The more sordid, the better Those predicting Facebook's demise are blowing smoke If bitcoin is 'digital gold,' it should be taxed like gold MORE (R-Ala.), testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier in the month. The upper chamber could vote on his confirmation as early as this week.
This report was updated at 7:57 a.m.