Democrats have hit out at the sacking of acting attorney general Sally Yates over her refusal to defend Donald Trump's travel ban, describing the actions as a 'Nixon-like massacre'.

Yates incurred the White House's wrath after she instructed lawyers at the Department of Justice not to defend an executive order temporarily banning refugees and people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering America.

"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 seen by The Hill that addressed Yates' dismissal.

"It is time to get serious about protecting our country."

The president's actions were described by Democrats as being akin to Nixon's 'Saturday Night Massacre' – the notorious 1973 incident in which President Richard Nixon dismissed special prosecutor Archibald Cox over his refusal to drop an investigation into Watergate.

Cox's dismissal prompted the resignation of two leaders of the justice department.

John Conyers, a senior Democrat sitting on the House Judiciary Committee, said: "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.

"If dedicated government officials deem his directives to be unlawful and unconstitutional he will simply fire them as if government is a reality show."

Another member of the committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, suggested Trump had set a "dangerous" precedent in firing Yates, adding: "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."