President Trump was right to fire Sally Yates. But he did it wrong.
She gave him no choice. He had to fire her. But he didn't have to fire her like this.
It didn't take long for President Donald Trump to roll out his signature line from The Apprentice after assuming office as the 45th president of the United States. In fact, it only took 10 days.
Many liberals are devolving into hysterics over Trump's firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates. But the truth is, she gave him no choice. He had to fire her.
The way he went about it, however, was wrong.
Trump's first "you're fired" as president followed the controversial rollout of an executive order restricting entry to the U.S. for nationals from seven majority-Muslim nations over the next few months. Late Friday afternoon, Trump and his team announced an immediate halt to entry for visa holders and refugees from these nations, which the U.S. has deemed especially dangerous. Six of the seven — Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — are failed or failing states where terror networks occupy ground and operate with relative ease. The seventh, Iran, has long been cited as the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism. Trump's order specified a limited time frame for the suspension in order to draw up tougher vetting processes and demand that the governments of each nation provide more data on their citizens. This order comports with numerous campaign pledges made over the past two years by Trump, coming in the context of terror attacks conducted in European nations that have had large influxes of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Libya.
That Trump planned to order these changes came as no surprise. But the implementation clearly lacked proper planning and basic communication between the White House and the various agencies involved. The immediate imposition stranded scores of travelers around the world, creating confusion in airports from New York to Turkey. The White House at first insisted that the order also barred the entry of legal permanent residents (holders of green cards), but within 48 hours had backed away from that interpretation. Meanwhile, it became apparent that Trump's advisers had not worked closely with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, both of whom took steps to counter the effects of the order on Monday.
Here's where the firing comes in: Multiple lawsuits were filed in federal court to stop the enforcement of the order, generating temporary injunctions that allowed some travelers to exit airports and enter the U.S. Normally, the attorney general represents the White House in such legal actions. However, Congress has not yet confirmed Jeff Sessions for that position, so the task fell to acting Attorney General Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration.
Despite a finding by the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel that Trump's order was legal and within his authority, Yates said she wasn't sure of that herself. She also wrote, in instructing her agency to refuse to represent the White House in defending the order, that the Office of Legal Counsel's ruling didn't match up with her own conclusions on "whether any policy choice embodied in an executive order is wise or just."
In other words, instead of resigning in protest over a policy she disagreed with, Yates blocked the Department of Justice from doing its job. Any president faced with that kind of insubordination would replace the subordinate. The fact that Trump fired her is hardly surprising. What else could he do?
Here's what actually is unsettling: the manner in which President Trump chose to remove Yates. Rather than just asking for her immediate resignation, Trump fired Yates while publicly accusing her of having "betrayed the Department of Justice," and of being personally "weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration."
Trump was right to fire Yates. But he managed to make it look petty and vengeful rather than proper.
This couldn't come at a worse time for the new administration. The Senate has yet to confirm most of Trump's Cabinet, and some of the nominees are still waiting for hearings to conclude. Trump will have a Supreme Court nominee going to the Senate in the next few weeks. Democrats — and likely some Republicans — will have plenty of opportunities to embarrass the White House in these hearings, and Congress might start calling hearings on the immigration order soon independently of confirmations.
Almost none of this had to happen. Had the White House provided a short warning period — no more than a week — before implementing the order, travelers would not have gotten stuck in airports around the world and provided the media sensational optics for the temporary policy change. Had the White House worked more closely with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, they could have avoided the questionable decisions to include green-card holders and military interpreters as part of the travel suspension. Had the White House brought Yates into the huddle from the beginning, knowing full well that legal action would result from these changes no matter how smoothly they rolled out, they could have had the opportunity to replace her more quietly, rather than get blindsided by her refusal and making the opposition even more public than before.
Supporters of President Trump, and even some of his skeptics, have plenty of reason to cheer his Cabinet appointments and the policies he's already put into place. The lack of organizational competence, however, threatens to undermine those gains. Much of what Trump pledged to do relies on his expertise and success as an executive, especially in slashing regulations in a manner that allows for greater freedom without losing the ability to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. Voters will allow a new administration some growing pains, but the series of errors in implementing this order strains the boundaries of any honeymoon period.
Trump does have an opportunity as his Cabinet gets confirmed to hand over policy implementation to experienced deputies. That can't happen fast enough. George W. Bush learned the hard way during Hurricane Katrina that some mistakes are so egregious they can't be walked back, even when some of the responsibility for those mistakes should get spread around. Trump has time to right the ship. But for now, he ought to slow down, take a deep breath, and stop writing executive orders for awhile. He has four years — at least. There's no need to do everything so fast and furious. It's time to let the chaos subside.