By BRIDGET BOWMAN and JOHN T. BENNETT
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered some skepticism of President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily barring refugees and immigrants from certain countries, but declined to offer a “blanket criticism” of the order.
Trump issued an order Friday evening that banned for 90 days citizens from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Sudan and Yemen. Syria, Iraq and Somalia were among the top five countries of origin for refugees entering the United States in 2016, according to the State Department.
Trump’s executive action did not apply to countries whose citizens were linked to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates, one from Lebanon, and one from Egypt. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates also are among countries where the Trump Organization reportedly is active.
Democrats condemned the executive order as contrary to American values, but many Republicans were silent Saturday as people across the country protested the move at airports.
“I think it’s a good idea to tighten the vetting process,” McConnell said on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday morning. “But I also think it’s important to remember that some of our best sources in war against radical Islamic terrorism are Muslims, both in this country and overseas.”
The Kentucky Republican said the legality of the order would be decided in the courts.
“If they’re looking to tighten the vetting process, who would be against that?” McConnell said. “But I am opposed to a religious test. The courts are going to determine whether this is too broad.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan backed the order, saying in a statement, “We are a compassionate nation, and I support the refugee resettlement program, but it’s time to reevaluate and strengthen the visa vetting process. … President Trump is right to make sure we are doing everything possible to know exactly who is entering our country.”
The group of countries singled out in Trump’s executive order are all Muslim-majority countries. Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network on Friday that Christian refugees would be given priority.
“They’ve been horribly treated,” Trump said. “Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria, it was impossible, at least very tough to get into the United States? If you were a Muslim, you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible. And the reason that was so unfair, everybody was persecuted, in all fairness, but they were chopping off the heads of everybody but more so the Christians. And I thought it was very, very unfair. So we are going to help them.”
Democrats blasted the order as discriminatory and dangerous.
“Instead of protecting us from terrorist attacks, the discriminatory standards for refugee admissions signed yesterday will more likely serve to fuel terrorist recruitment, further alienate Muslims in America, and force our allies in Europe to bear an even greater burden of refugee resettlement,” said Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Standing with refugees at a Sunday press conference in New York, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Senate Democrats will introduce legislation to overturn Trump’s executive order.
Schumer also said in a statement, “Tears are running down the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty tonight.” The minority leader phoned Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on Saturday night to urge the administration to rescind the order.
“Taking in immigrants and refugees is not only humanitarian but has also boosted our economy and created jobs, decade after decade,” the New York Democrat said. “This is one of the most backward and nasty executive orders that the president has issued.”
A handful of Republicans have been critical of the order’s breadth.
“The president is right to focus attention on the obvious fact that borders matter,” said Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse. “At the same time, while not technically a Muslim ban, this order is too broad.”
The most senior GOP senator, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, urged Trump in a statement “to move quickly to tailor its policy on visa issuance as narrowly as possible so that officials can protect our security needs while reducing unnecessary burdens on the vast majority of visa-seekers that present a promise — not a threat — to our nation.”
“While it is appropriate to consider religious persecution when reviewing a request for refugee status, a preference should not be given to people who practice a particular religion, nor should a greater burden be imposed on people who practice a particular religion,” Collins said.
Some House Republicans have also sharply criticized the action.
Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, who represents Allentown, one of the top destinations for Syrian refugees, told The Washington Post, “This is ridiculous. I guess I understand what his intention is, but unfortunately, the order appears to have been rushed through without full consideration.”
Michigan Rep. Justin Amash tweeted, “We must do much more to properly vet refugees, but a blanket ban represents an extreme approach not consistent with our nation’s values.”
Amash is the son of immigrants. His father is Palestinian and his mother is from Syria.
For the second consecutive day, senior Trump administration officials on Sunday denied that the order amounts to a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
Kellyanne Conway, a top White House adviser, noted that 46 countries in which Muslims make up the majority of the population are not covered by the order. She said on “Fox News Sunday” that the order’s focus on only seven Muslim-majority countries “undercuts” the description that it is a “Muslim ban,” dubbing it a “terrorist ban.”
She attempted to deflect criticism by saying the seven countries targeted by the order were taken from a list developed by the Obama administration and Congress last year.
Conway seemed to contradict herself when pointing to the individuals who carried out attacks in Boston, Orlando, Florida, and San Bernardino, California. All were radicalized over the internet and none were refugees seeking entry into the U.S.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said Sunday the order would not directly apply to American citizens, further contradicting Conway’s claims about the recent attacks on American soil.
Priebus added confusion to the order’s scope when he said law enforcement officials will have “discretionary authority” to detain anyone traveling from those seven countries. It is unclear if this is a change from existing policies.
A day earlier, Trump told reporters, “It’s not a Muslim ban.”
“It’s working out very nicely,” the president said. “You see it at the airports, you see it all over.”
On Saturday, an administration official told pool reporters at the White House, “We’re dealing with a relatively small universe of people.”
“It’s important to keep in mind that no person living or residing overseas has a right to entry to the U.S.,” the official said.