Trump’s Talk About Muslims Led Acting Attorney General to Defy Ban

As Republicans seethed over President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration in early 2015, Senator Jeff Sessions sharply questioned Sally Q. Yates about whether she had the independent streak needed to be the Justice Department’s second in command.

.. “If the views the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?” Mr. Sessions asked during a confirmation hearing for Ms. Yates.

.. President Trump’s own words convinced her that his executive order on immigration was intended to single out Muslims, senior officials said. Hours after she refused to defend that order, Mr. Trump fired her.

.. The Office of Legal Counsel of the Justice Department had reviewed the order and signed off on its legality. But Ms. Yates and her staff lawyers believed that the department had to consider the intent of the order, which she said appeared intended to single out people based on religion.

“We have comments from the president about what this is supposed to do,” Ms Yates said in one meeting on Monday, according to two people involved in the discussions. She later added, “The intent was clear from the face of it.”

.. Mr. Trump had campaigned on a promise to single out Muslims for immigration restrictions. One of his advisers, Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, said in an interview that Mr. Trump wanted a Muslim ban but needed “the right way to do it legally.” Mr. Trump said in a later interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network that Christian refugees would be given priority for entry visas to the United States.

.. Ms. Yates considered resigning, the officials said, but concluded that doing so would leave the decision to whomever succeeded her, even if in a temporary capacity.

.. Mr. Sessions, an immigration hard-liner, argued that the Justice Department should have refused to support Mr. Obama’s executive action liberalizing immigration policy.

Ms. Yates promised that she would stand up to the president, if necessary.

.. Last year, Ms. Yates and Ms. Lynch earned the ire of Democrats — including many in the department — for not intervening and prohibiting the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, from sending a letter to Congress in the final days of the presidential campaign.