Trump doubles down on refugee ban as confusion mounts

President Donald Trump's aide's defended the order. “The safety of the American citizens, the safety of our country has got to be paramount,” Sean Spicer said. | AP Photo

President Donald Trump's aide's defended the order. “The safety of the American citizens, the safety of our country has got to be paramount,” Sean Spicer said. | AP Photo

President Donald Trump on Sunday doubled down on his executive order barring refugees and some legal immigrants from entering the United States, even as one of his top aides walked back one major element of the order, signaling a growing sense of confusion and fissures within the 10-day-old 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. America has always been the land of the free and home of the brave. We will keep it free and keep it safe, as the media knows, but refuses to say," he said in an afternoon statement.

The Trump team's mixed messages were abundant as global outrage grew over the order. The directive, which Trump has cast as a national security imperative, effectively bars entry to the United States by people ranging from Iraqi translators to Syrian refugees to a British Olympian. It also has been interpreted to apply to legal U.S. permanent residents and many foreigners with multiple nationalities.

Thousands gathered outside the White House to demand Trump rescind what they called the "Muslim ban” — one of several protests nationwide. Prominent Republicans and foreign leaders chided Trump, warning 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 the 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. "Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW. Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world — a horrible mess!" the president tweeted early Sunday. He later tweeted: "Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!"

A few hours later, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told NBC News that the order would not affect U.S. legal permanent residents "moving forward," which appeared to be a scaling back in response to legal threats. Still, Priebus muddied the waters by saying such people would still face extra screening before they could be allowed back into the United States if they travel to certain countries singled out by the order.

"President Trump is not willing to get this wrong which is why he wants to move forward quickly and protect Americans," Priebus said.

But opponents say the executive order has upended the lives of numerous innocent people.

Ibrahim Lutfi and his relatives of natives of Sudan. Lutfi said his nephew, Ali Nadeeb, is a diabetic who has been in a coma at Howard University hospital. 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. He joined hundreds of people protesting the Trump order at Dulles International Airport on Sunday.

"It's her only son," Lutfi said, holding a sign with a picture of 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.

The White House also initially insisted that U.S. legal permanent residents (so-called green-card holders) who hail from those seven countries must get additional screenings if they are returning to America from abroad, but it left the nature of that screening unclear. Generally speaking, people of dual citizenship also are barred from entering the United States if one of their nationalities is from the seven countries.

The order took immediate effect, and the result was panic and confusion at airports across the country Friday and Saturday as some travelers' legal status changed mid-flight. 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 mid-day 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!"

On the legal front, U.S. officials tried to nail down the implications of a flurry of rulings from judges across the country that effectively barred customs and border agents from deporting the detained. The initial ruling came from Judge Ann Donnelly, a federal judge in Brooklyn appointed by former President Barack Obama, on Saturday.

But even as the Department of Homeland Security promised it would abide by the ruling nationwide, including by allowing in green-card holders, there were reports of border agents saying they would continue to put people on planes leaving the United States.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Sunday spoke with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who told Schumer that the administration will comply with the court order.”

“All those still in airports expected to be admitted,” Schumer tweeted. The Democrat also pledged that the minority party will propose legislation to overturn Trump’s executive order.

Separately, 16 state attorneys general, including those from California and New York, spoke out against the executive order and warned that they will “use all of the tools of our offices to fight this unconstitutional order and preserve our nation’s national security and core values.”

Pressed for comment, a White House official downplayed the judicial impact, pointing to the Brooklyn ruling in particular. "Saturday’s ruling does not undercut the president's executive order. All stopped visas will remain stopped. All halted admissions will remain halted. All restricted travel will remain prohibited," the official said. "The order remains in place.”

Other Trump aides repeatedly tried to downplay the situation, arguing that, considering how many people regularly travel to the United States, the numbers affected were relatively small and thus of little consequence.

“There’s 325,000 people from foreign countries that traveled into the United States yesterday," White House spokesman Sean Spicer told ABC News on Sunday. "There are 109 people that this actually addressed that had come in post-entry from seven countries that we’ve identified."

Spicer further disputed reports that the administration had blindsided its own agencies, claiming the White House told the "people that needed to know" about the order in advance. Still, he added, much of it was kept secret to prevent a sudden surge of people trying to reach America.

"What we couldn't do was telegraph our position ahead of time to ensure that people flooded in before that happened, before it went into place," he said. "If we had telegraphed that ahead of time, then that would have been a massive security problem."

Spicer insisted that the executive order does not amount to a ban on Muslims as some critics insist because many Muslim-majority countries are not covered by it. But Priebus, speaking to NBC News, acknowledged that the number of Muslim countries covered by the order could be expanded; as it stands, nations such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, whose citizens have been involved in major terrorist attacks against the United States, aren't targeted by the order.

Numerous Democratic lawmakers have blasted the order, and Trump's fellow Republicans have started to splinter. A handful, such as Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, issued statements saying the order goes too far, especially when it affects legal permanent residents. Sens. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned in a joint statement that the executive order could bolster recruitment by terrorists who claim the West hates Muslims.

“Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism,” McCain and Graham said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to strike a balance in an interview with ABC, insisting that while he opposes religious tests for people entering the country, additional vetting isn't a bad idea.

"We need to remember that some of our best allies in the war against Islamic terrorism are Muslims," the Kentucky Republican added, pointing out that those allies include interpreters in war zones overseas. Trump's order could in particular bar many Iraqi interpreters who've applied to a special U.S. visa program.

Still, Trump's tweet about Christians undercut some of McConnell's arguments. The executive order makes a point of directing U.S. officials to give priority to religious minorities once the refugee program resumes, and in many cases, that implies Christians. That being said, although Christians have been treated viciously in several of the countries affected by the order, many Muslims have, too, especially if they are of the minority Shiite branch of Islam. In any case, Trump's executive order de facto bars Christians from Syria and beyond; two Syrian Christian families that landed in Philadelphia were sent back to Qatar following the order.

Also chiming in on the debate in the United States were foreign leaders. Canada's Justin Trudeau tweeted that his country remained open to refugees, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May also reportedly criticized the order.

British residents were particularly upset as word spread of prominent compatriots who could be affected. Olympic track champion Mo Farah, a British citizen of Somali descent who lives and trains in the United States, wrote a Facebook post in which he worried the policy could separate him from his children. As it's currently interpreted, if Farah were to leave the United States, he wouldn't be allowed back in.

"On 1st January this year, Her Majesty The Queen made me a Knight of the Realm. On 27th January, President Donald Trump seems to have made me an alien," Farah wrote.