Even as confusion, internal dissent and widespread condemnation greeted President Trump’s travel ban and crackdown on refugees this weekend, senior White House aides say they are are only getting started.
Trump and his aides justified Friday’s executive order, which blocked travel from seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days and halted refugees from around the world for 120, on security grounds — an issue that they say they take seriously. But their ultimate goal is far broader.
Trump’s top advisors on immigration, including chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior advisor Stephen Miller, see themselves as launching a radical experiment to fundamentally transform how the U.S. decides who is allowed into the country and to block a generation of people who, in their view, won’t assimilate into American society.
That project may live or die in the next three months, as the Trump administration reviews whether and how to expand the visa ban and alter vetting procedures. White House aides are considering new, onerous security checks that could effectively limit travel into the U.S. by people from majority-Muslim countries to a trickle.
The administration faced down another torrent of criticism Monday — from fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill, career diplomats, national security experts and world leaders — over the hasty rollout of the order, as well as the message it sent to both friends and adversaries in the war on terrorism. Though Trump’s ban does not affect all Muslims, as he promised during the campaign, many see it as religiously targeted.
President Obama also weighed in for the first time, saying through a spokesman that he “is heartened” by the public demonstrations against it. Obama did not cite specific language from the order, but spokesman Kevin Lewis said Obama “fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion.”
The government bureaucracy also began a swift and startling level of resistance to the new president’s initiative, punctuated by a letter from acting U.S. Atty. Gen. Sally Yates, who declared that she would refuse to defend the order in court against a series of lawsuits.
Trump immediately counterpunched, firing Yates within hours Monday night and replacing her with Dana Boente, U.S. attorney for the Eastern district of Virginia, on an acting basis.
A group of U.S. diplomats circulated an internal memo through a State Department process that allows them to privately express dissent, arguing that Trump’s order “runs counter to core American values of non-discrimination, fair play and extending a warm welcome to foreign visitors and immigrants.
“A policy which closes our doors to over 200-million legitimate travelers in the hopes of preventing a small number of travelers who intend to harm Americans ... will not achieve its aim of making our country safer,” said a draft version of the memo.
The list will include names of individuals who have “demonstrated their commitment” to helping the U.S., Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Monday.
“Even people that are doing seemingly benign things in support of us — whether as a linguist, a driver, anything else — they often do that at great personal risk,” he said. “So people who take these risks are really making a tangible signal of support to the United States, and that’s something that will, and should be, recognized.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the administration recognizes the help of Iraqi interpreters and others who have served this country, but added that they would remain subject to intense vetting.
“We should make sure that in those cases they’re helped out,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that we just give them a pass.”
Despite the backlash, senior White House officials maintain that the ban is popular with Trump’s voters, though no reputable polling on the question has been released since Friday’s order. Spicer said media coverage of the implementation had been overblown, given that only 109 of 325,000 travelers were detained in the first 24 hours. He said Trump is putting in place proactive security measures rather than reacting to attacks.
“I’m sorry that some folks may have had to wait a little while, but I think the president would much rather know that he’s not placing a call to someone who was killed because someone was let into this country to commit a terrorist act,” he said.
Still, the countries of origin for perpetrators of several prominent attacks cited by Spicer were not on the list of banned countries. Spicer and other administration officials said more countries could be added.
Spicer had little sympathy for dissenting diplomats, saying their disagreement with the policy calls “into question whether or not they should continue in that post or not.”
White House aides fought back against characterizations that they had kept the order to themselves, pointing to input they had gotten for months from allies.
Senior GOP staff on the House and Senate judiciary committees helped write a version of the executive order on their own time during Trump’s transition.
An aide to the House panel acknowledged that the staffers were permitted to lend their immigration policy expertise to the transition team but added that the administration was responsible for “final policy decisions.”
They based its legal wording on the harsh immigration policy Trump laid out on the campaign trail. During a speech in Phoenix in August, Trump promised to suspend immigration from “places like Syria and Libya” and create an “ideological certification to make sure that those we are admitting to our country share our values and love our people.”
But several stakeholders said they were left out.
One Republican senator who contacted the White House on Sunday seeking guidance failed to get full clarification, according to an aide.
Two GOP aides complained that Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the Homeland Security committee, had “absolutely no role” in drafting Trump’s final order. They said that a memo McCaul drafted with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a longtime Trump supporter, and others focused largely on explaining “why the Muslim ban was a terrible idea.” The aides disputed that Trump’s order amounted to a Muslim ban, noting that Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world, was not on it.
“It’s self-evident that the coordination of this executive order was bungled, that that has had consequences, and we hope that in the future the White House will more proactively engage Congress and the agencies that are affected,” said one of the Republican leadership aides, granted anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The chief architects of Trump’s order, Bannon, Miller and National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn, forged strong bonds during the presidential campaign.
The trio, who make up part of Trump’s inner circle, have a dark view of refugee and immigration flows from majority-Muslim countries, believing that if large numbers of Muslims are allowed to enter the U.S., parts of American cities will begin to replicate disaffected and disenfranchised immigrant neighborhoods in France, Germany and Belgium that have been home to perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Europe in recent years.
Within decades, Americans would have “the kind of large and permanent domestic terror threat that becomes multidimensional and multigenerational and becomes sort of a permanent feature,” one senior administration official argued.
“We don’t want a situation where, 20 to 30 years from now, it’s just like a given thing that on a fairly regular basis there is domestic terror strikes, stores are shut up or that airports have explosive devices planted, or people are mowed down in the street by cars and automobiles and things of that nature,” the official said.
Counter-terrorism experts have long noted that Muslim immigrants in the U.S. are better assimilated and less likely to be radicalized than immigrants in many European cities.
But the connection between immigration, security, economics and culture that defines the nationalist ideology of Bannon and Miller has become intertwined in Trump’s own rhetoric.
“Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW,” Trump tweeted over the weekend. “Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world — a horrible mess!”
Times staff writers Matt Pearce, Lisa Mascaro, Michael A. Memoli, Tracy Wilkinson and W. J. Hennigan contributed to this report.
7:50 p.m.: This story was updated with comment from the House Judiciary Committee.
This story was originally published at 6:25 p.m.