President Donald Trump: “To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting." |
President Donald Trump on Sunday defended his executive order barring refugees and some legal immigrants from entering the United States, even as a top Cabinet official walked back part of the measure — signaling confusion and fissures within the new administration.
“America is a proud nation of immigrants and we will continue to show compassion to those fleeing oppression, but we will do so while protecting our own citizens and border,” Trump said in an afternoon statement that also cited what he described as precedent set by former President Barack Obama. “To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting. This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe."
Trump — who also took the time Sunday to accuse Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham of “looking to start World War III” — and his aides struggled to stay on message as protests spread and global outrage grew over the executive order. The directive effectively bars entry to the United States by people ranging from Iraqi translators to Syrian refugees to many international college students. It initially was said to apply to legal U.S. permanent residents — so-called green card holders — as well as many foreigners with multiple nationalities.
Conflicting interpretations spurred Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to clarify that green card holders were indeed exempt from Trump's broad order.
"In applying the provisions of the president's executive order, I hereby deem the entry of lawful permanent residents to be in the national interest," Kelly said in a statement Sunday evening. Some permanent residents were caught up in the weekend's confusion as they attempted to return from overseas visits.
Thousands gathered outside the White House to demand Trump rescind the order — one of many protests nationwide. Prominent Republicans and foreign leaders chided Trump, warning that the order could backfire by inspiring terrorists. Democrats lunged for the political opening, vowing legislation to repeal the order and hinting at lawsuits filed by state attorneys general. Meanwhile, a string of rulings from judges halted the deportation of travelers caught in the drama, but also bewildered U.S. officials unsure how to enforce Trump’s order.
The developments underscore the haphazard approach the Trump administration has taken toward using its political power. Trump issued the order Friday with little notice to or input from the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department or other agencies critical to implementing it, according to multiple sources. The order's complexity left administration lawyers scrambling to interpret it as advocacy groups filed lawsuits.
Trump did not appear moved by the chaos.
In his statement, he asserted that Obama had “banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months” in 2011. Actually, the Obama administration, reacting to intelligence indicating some refugees may have had terrorist ties, had instituted additional security checks, severely slowing down the visa issuance process. Trump also noted that the seven countries targeted by his order were also listed by Obama as potential terror sources.
Early Sunday, Trump tweeted: "Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW. Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world — a horrible mess!" Later in the morning, he sent out another tweet: "Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!"
On Sunday evening, a senior administration official said “the guidance from the beginning” was that legal U.S. permanent residents were exempt from the executive order. He denied reports that the White House had overruled Homeland Security officials in deciding that legal permanent residents were subject to additional vetting before they would be allowed back inside the United States. But the official acknowledged that some 170 legal permanent residents caught up in the drama have had to apply for waivers to be allowed back in, though he stressed that all received the waivers.
“Some of the confusion stems from the semantic debate about the meaning of the word exemption,” the official told reporters. “Every false, misleading, inaccurate, hyperventilating, confused, misguided or other kind of report again covers a fractional marginal minuscule percentage of travelers to our airports on any given day.
“It really is a massive success story in terms of implementation on every single level,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Opponents of the executive order bristled at the notion that just because a small number of people were affected that it didn’t matter.
Ibrahim Lutfi and his relatives are natives of Sudan. Lutfi said his nephew, Ali Nadeeb, is a diabetic who has been in a coma at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C. Ali’s mother planned to fly to the U.S. from Qatar to visit her son, but she was not allowed to board the plane despite having obtained a proper visitor’s visa, said Lutfi, who added that he became a U.S. citizen eight years ago. On Sunday, he joined hundreds of people protesting the Trump order at Dulles International Airport near Washington.
"It's her only son," Lutfi said, holding a sign with a picture of a smiling Ali alongside a second image of him in a hospital bed.
Trump's executive order, issued Friday, has many elements, but its main features include an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees, a pause for all refugee admissions to the United States, and the temporary suspension of all visa holders from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Libya.
In his Sunday afternoon statement, Trump pointed out that more than 40 Muslim-majority countries were not singled out in the order. He also noted that the suspension of entries from those countries was temporary until the administration undertook a review and determined within 90 days that the safeguards involved in screening those travelers were strong enough.
But Trump failed to mention that the conditions he has set in his executive order may not be able to be met by some or possibly all of those countries. The president wants, for instance, for the countries to share information with the U.S. to help it vet travelers. But some of the countries are weakly governed, wrecked by war or do not have diplomatic ties with Washington, making it possible their citizens could be indefinitely barred from entering the United States. (U.S. officials have long used other measures to vet citizens of the seven countries.)
Activists gather near the White House to protest President Trump's temporary ban on immigration on Jan. 29. | John Shinkle/POLITICO
U.S. officials also said initially that people with multiple citizenships also are barred from entering the United States if one of their nationalities is from the seven countries. But even that was up for debate, especially as Canada said it was told its dual nationals would not be affected, and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson announced he’d obtained assurances that U.K. citizens who hold one of the seven countries’ nationalities also were exempt so long as they were not traveling to the United States from one of the seven countries.
A Homeland Security official late Sunday said that it all could depend on the passport a traveler decides to use. “[Customs and Border Protection] processes individuals based on the passport they present. In other words, if a French dual national presents their French passport, they are good to go,” the official said. She did not reply to follow-up questions about why the interpretations had changed.
The executive order took immediate effect Friday, and the result was panic and confusion at airports across the country over the weekend as some travelers' legal status changed midflight. Those caught up included an Iraqi who obtained a special U.S. visa for helping American troops, as well as legal U.S. permanent residents returning from trips abroad. Lawyers rushed to airports to help the stranded on Saturday, while protesters did, too, jamming up streets outside major points such as O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Demonstrations continued nationwide Sunday. Hundreds of people streamed into Lafayette Square outside the White House, waving flags and signs. "No hate! No fear! Refugees are welcome here!" the crowd shouted. At Dulles, protesters cheered midday Sunday as passengers arrived on a plane from Saudi Arabia. Some of the travelers, whose exact nationalities were unclear, were obviously distressed. As they met their relatives, the crowd shouted "Welcome!" and "Glad you're here!"