WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates late Monday after she announced the Justice Department would not defend his travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries — embroiling the administration in controversy for a third day.
Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration who enjoyed support from members of both parties, was replaced hours after she questioned the legality of Trump's executive order, signed Friday, and directed the department to drop its defense of the 90-day travel ban.
Throughout the day, Trump and White House aides doubled down on the executive order as a necessary step for national security despite growing criticism from business leaders, academic officials and other Republicans who said its implementation was abrupt and chaotic.
"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 late Monday. "It is time to get serious about protecting our country. Calling for tougher vetting for individuals travelling from seven dangerous places is not extreme."
The firing came after Yates, a career prosecutor since the 1980s, wrote a letter to Justice Department lawyers in which she questioned the lawfulness of Trump's order. The move was largely symbolic, given the expectation that the Senate will confirm Trump's pick to lead the department — Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama — as early as this week.
"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 the letter.
Throughout the day, Trump and White House officials repeatedly suggested that only a small number of travelers had been ensnared by the ban, and said that inconvenience was justified to protect national security and honor a pledge that was central to Trump's campaign.
"I'm sorry that some folks may have had to wait a little while," White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters. "They were temporarily detained to make sure the safety of the other 324 million Americans was put first. I don't see how that's a big problem."
The president himself took to Twitter to say there is "nothing nice about searching for terrorists before they can enter our country." The order was being implemented with "very few problems," he wrote, noting that the ban was "a big part of my campaign."
But as Trump entered his second week in office, the ban continued to roil national politics even as the administration signed a new executive order to limit federal regulations and the president said he would name his nominee to the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
Former President Barack Obama weighed in on the debate, with a spokesman saying the Democrat "fundamentally disagrees" with discrimination based on religion and was "heartened" by the protests.
The travel ban — which led to demonstrations over the weekend at BWI Marshall Airport and other international terminals — also drew more criticism from business, academic and religious leaders. Executives at Ford Motor Co. announced they do not support it. An associate dean at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said she is worried about the school's ability to recruit international students.
Meanwhile, a 5-year-old boy from Montgomery County had become a cause celebre for opponents of the order after his family said he was held for hours in Washington Dulles International Airport on Saturday. The boy, a U.S. citizen and Bethesda resident, was traveling with a cousin from Turkey.
Asked about the case, Spicer said Trump's opponents were nitpicking.
"To assume just because of someone's age or gender or whatever that they don't pose a threat would be misguided and wrong," he said.
A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's administration said the Maryland Department of Human Resources had contacted the family and was informed the situation had been resolved.
"Obviously that report was very concerning to our administration," spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said.
The boy's family could not be reached Monday.
Yates was replaced by Dana J. Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Boente is a 31-year veteran of the Justice Department, with a background in tax crimes and fraud.
The letter, the defiance of the president's wishes that it reflected and the subsequent firing created the most public split between the Justice Department and a White House since fall 1973, when President Richard Nixon ordered the firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, prompting the department's two top leaders to resign.
Taken together, the actions heightened the already tense atmosphere surrounding the travel ban, which has sparked protests and several court challenges.
On Capitol Hill, most Republicans said they support more stringent vetting of immigrants and refugees, but a growing number raised concerns about the way the order was implemented. Republicans in both chambers blocked Democratic efforts Monday to quickly overturn the order.
Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican in Congress, said in his first remarks on the order that he backs the administration's effort.
"The vetting of individuals seeking to immigrate into the United States from countries where ISIS has a significant presence must be increased to better protect Americans' safety and our national security," the Baltimore County lawmaker said.
"The United States should resume issuing visas to all these countries only after a review of these policies is completed, and only if the countries comply with supplying the information necessary to allow complete vetting," he added.
Other Republicans have been more skeptical. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina said in a joint statement that "the manner in which these measures were crafted and implemented have greatly contributed to the confusion, anxiety and uncertainty of the last few days."
White House officials pointed to polling indicating support for clamping down on immigration. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday showed 48 percent of Americans support "suspending immigration from terror prone regions, even if it means turning away refugees," compared with 42 percent who opposed it. But that poll was conducted in early January, meaning its respondents had not seen the details of Trump's order.
Several students at Maryland universities, meanwhile, said the order has made them nervous about their ability to continue their studies.
Amir Manbachi, a biomedical engineering researcher at the Johns Hopkins University, will have to apply for a new work visa in May to continue his studies. He is scared his application will now be declined.
Manbachi, 32, is a Canadian citizen but was born in Iran, one of the countries included in the order. In addition to having to apply for the visa, Manbachi said he is nervous about flying back to Canada to visit his girlfriend for Valentine's Day because he fears U.S. customs officials might not let him return.
"My entire academic career may get stranded," said Manbachi, who has developed a medical device to help treat brain tumors as part of his research.
Medical schools around the country are currently going through the "match process" where they rank students they want to study at their institutions. Some schools might rank students from the seven countries lower because of uncertainty about whether they would be allowed to enter the U.S., said Jessica Bienstock, associate dean for graduate medical education at the Johns Hopkins medical school.
"The amount of uncertainty that this decision throws into the process is tremendous," Bienstock said. "Programs will be hesitant to make formal requests to students from the affected countries. If you make a commitment to someone from one of these countries they may not be able to come, and then you have a hole in your residency program."
University of Maryland Medical Center said in a statement it is closely monitoring the potential impact the ban could have on patients, faculty, researchers, students and health care providers. Dr. Jay A. Perman, president of University of Maryland, Baltimore, said the school is working to determine the implications for students, faculty and staff.
Nearly 400 legal permanent residents were delayed upon their arrival back in the United States between the time the travel ban was signed and Sunday evening, a federal law enforcement official told the Associated Press.
Sessions is likely to be confirmed, but Senate Democrats have been trying to slow the process. Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen — both Democrats — have said they will oppose Sessions.
The firing also increased the sense of chaos that already has surrounded the executive order. The order suspended refugee resettlements in the U.S for 120 days, and indefinitely for those from Syria. It also banned travel to the U.S. for 90 days by nationals of seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The State Department announced Monday that refugees from places other than the seven countries covered by Trump's ban could still enter the U.S. through Thursday because many were already in transit. About 900 refugees are expected to enter the U.S. this week, the department said in a statement. Earlier, officials had been uncertain about their fate.
The Tribune Washington bureau and Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.