Monday 22 January 2018

US travel ban is reversed as court incurs wrath of Trump

White House vows to fight suspension of Trump's controversial executive order - but confusion reigns, writes David Lawler

US President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
US President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

David Lawler

Donald Trump lashed out yesterday at a federal judge who blocked his executive order on immigration and refugees and insisted that the ruling would not stand.

President Trump and his aides reacted furiously after Judge James Robart of Seattle placed a temporary hold on the controversial order banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US and suspending America's refugee programme.

Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said the Department of Justice would seek an emergency stay on that ruling to allow the ban to be reinstated.

Spicer initially called the ruling "outrageous" but the word was removed from a subsequent statement. Trump was less cautious, calling the decision "ridiculous" and challenging Robart's authority.

"The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!" wrote the US president on Twitter.

Government agencies immediately complied with the ruling, and travellers with valid visas from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen were allowed to board planes bound for the US.

The US State Department began to reissue visas to the 60,000 citizens of those countries who had them revoked due to the ban and the Department of Homeland Security said it would abandon "any and all actions" relating to the implementation of the order.

Travellers that had been turned away while trying to reach the US over the previous eight days began to arrive at US airports yesterday. Some demonstrators gathered to greet them, and overjoyed new arrivals embraced family members they had feared they would be separated from for months.

As officials scrambled to comply with the sudden shift, marches took place in London, Washington and around the world opposing Trump's order.

Judge Robart made the ruling in response to lawsuits from Washington state and Minnesota, two of the states challenging the constitutionality of the order. He issued a temporary restraining order, blocking the ban on the grounds that it was causing "immediate and irreparable injury" and may be ruled unconstitutional.

Judge Robart had questioned the federal government's lawyer, Michelle Bennett, about Trump's rationale for banning entry to the US for people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen, and also for the global suspension of the US refugee programme.

The judge had asked if there had been any terrorist attacks since 9/11 by people from the seven countries listed in Mr Trump's order. Ms Bennett said she did not know.

"The answer is none," Judge Robart said. "You're here arguing we have to protect ourselves from individuals from these countries, and there's no support for that."

Ms Bennett argued that the states could not sue on behalf of citizens and had failed to show the order was causing irreparable harm.

Judge Robart disagreed, and rejected a request from Ms Bennett for an immediate stay of his order.

Federal attorneys had argued that US Congress gave the president authority to make decisions on national security and immigrant entry.

But in his written order, Judge Robart said it was not the court's job to "create policy or judge the wisdom of any particular policy promoted by the other two branches", but rather, to make sure that actions taken by the executive or legislative branches "comports with our country's laws".

Judge Robart was nominated for the federal bench by Republican president George W Bush and confirmed unanimously by the Senate.

Senior Democratic senator Patrick Leahy called Trump's Twitter comments "embarrassing" and "dangerous".

"He seems intent on precipitating a constitutional crisis," Senator Leahy said in a statement, adding that Judge Robart was under attack merely for "having the audacity to do his job".

Adding to the confusion, a judge in Boston ruled on Friday that the US president was within his authority to issue the ban. That ruling did not prevent Robart's order from taking effect, but the contradictory findings mean the Supreme Court is likely to be called upon to determine the constitutionality of the ban.

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said Trump's "disdain for an independent judiciary" would "raise the bar" for Neil Gorsuch, the Trump nominee to fill a vacancy on the US supreme court.

At present the US supreme court has four members nominated by Republican presidents, and four nominated by Democrats. The balance would tip toward the Republicans if Gorsuch were to be confirmed, so his confirmation process could well determine whether the ban is upheld.

The implementation of President Trump's executive order has proved chaotic and divisive and reportedly prompted a stand-off between Steve Bannon, Trump's top strategist, and John Kelly, the director of homeland security.

After Kelly told the White House he planned to issue a waiver allowing legal permanent US residents from the countries affected by the ban back into the US (an exception not made in Mr Trump's order), Bannon made an unannounced visit to his office, according to the Washington Post.

Bannon demanded that Kelly not issue the waiver - but the retired general did so nonetheless, saying he answered only to Mr Trump.

For the ban to be reinstated, the US justice department will have to convince a federal court that Trump was within his authority to order it, and that the ruling blocking it should be overturned.

If the department obtains an emergency stay on Robart's ruling, the ban will go back into effect and the visas that have been approved, rescinded and now reissued will be invalidated once more. That could mean more travellers will again be stuck in limbo and have to be held or even turned back at US airports.

President Trump unleashed a series of Tweets defending the order yesterday, saying the US will be in "big trouble" if it loses the ability to determine who can and cannot enter the country.

He is spending the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and visited the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach yesterday.

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