In a stunning move, acting Attorney General Sally Yates has ordered Justice Department lawyers not to defend in court President Trump’s executive order banning travel to the U.S. by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries.
Ms. Yates, a holdover appointee from the Obama administration, said in a letter to DOJ attorneys on Monday that she was not convinced the executive order is lawful.
“Consequently, for as long as I am the Acting Attorney General, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense of the Executive Order, unless and until I become convinced that it is appropriate to do so,” she wrote.
In a stunning move that defies the president, Ms. Yates noted that her assessment of the executive order is broader than one completed by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which reviews the narrow question of whether a proposed executive order is lawful on its face.
“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,” she wrote.
The executive order in question, signed by Mr. Trump on Friday, indefinitely halts the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S. and temporarily bars nearly all citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from traveling to the U.S.
Challenges to the executive order have piled up as civil liberties and Muslim groups have filed lawsuits in court, initially seeking to block the deportation of travelers who were en route to the U.S. when the order took effect.
On Monday, the Washington state Attorney General and Council on American-Islamic Relations both filed separate lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the ban.
Ms. Yates, who served as Deputy Attorney General under Attorney General Loretta Lynch, is expected to leave the position soon to make room for a Trump administration appointment.
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to meet Tuesday to vote on Mr. Trump’s nomination for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Civil-liberties groups launched an effort last week to delay Tuesday’s vote in order to question the senator about the executive actions signed by Mr. Trump.
The vote was already delayed once by a week at the request of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, in order to give lawmakers more time to review additional documents and responses provided by Mr. Sessions.
Mr. Trump noted the delay in a post on Twitter late Monday after news of Ms. Yates’ actions broke.
“The Democrats are delaying my cabinet picks for purely political reasons. They have nothing going but to obstruct. Now have an Obama A.G.,” Mr. Trump wrote.
Ms. Yates said the Office of Legal Counsel review “does not take account of statements made by an administration or it surrogates close in time to the issuance of an Executive Order that may bear on the order’s purpose.”
“And importantly, it does not address whether any policy choice embodied in an Executive Order is wise or just,” Ms. Yates continued.
Critics have falsely called the executive order a “Muslim ban,” though Mr. Trump did call for this before his election.
The administration has stated that the goal of the order is to cut off access to the United States from countries with histories of terrorism, and notes that 40 majority-Muslim countries were not included in the order.
Mr. Trump’s order does not explicitly ban Muslims from entering the U.S., but the order makes exceptions for people in religious minorities who are seeking to escape persecution in those seven majority-Muslim countries.
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.