It’s working out very nicely,” President Donald Trump said on Saturday afternoon as he signed his latest batch of executive actions. “You see it in the airports.”
It was the usual confident swagger from a man accustomed to getting his way. But by then, a revolt against the president’s immigration order was already brewing, led by refugee rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, Democrats and liberals on social media, who had woken up to reports suggesting it was not working out very nicely at all. By 7:30 in the evening, protests at major airports across the United States had swollen, a federal judge was hearing a legal challenge, and cable news networks—with one notable exception—were covering the stunning events live. Passions ran so high that New Yorkers, many joked, were actually volunteering to go to JFK Airport to show solidarity with those detained by bewildered immigration officials.
Was this what Trump had in mind? His executive order temporarily barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States had been in effect for only about 24 hours, and it was already facing severe blowback. The hastily crafted order, which sent shock waves of confusion across the U.S. government and was temporarily and partially blocked by U.S. District Court Judge Ann Donnelly, caught thousands of Muslim travelers unawares, separating family members from one another and stranding many in legal limbo.
Now, what was meant as a bold assertion of presidential prerogative and a down payment on Trump’s promise to “eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the Earth” has dealt the president his first political defeat and energized his opponents after a week of demoralizing developments. And it has sharpened divisions between those Americans willing to take extreme measures to prevent the possibility of future attacks—and those who view such steps as abhorrent and misguided.
On the left, the outrage exploded immediately. Civil liberties groups, Democratic governors and members of Congress denounced Trump’s executive order as an unconscionable attack on American values. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee called it “cruelty”; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said there were “tears running down the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty”; even Hillary Clinton, last seen enduring Trump’s inauguration, emerged from mourning to tweet, “I stand with the people gathered across the country tonight defending our values & our Constitution. This is not who we are.”
Silicon Valley titans, who had gone all in for Clinton before clamming up after Trump’s victory, rallied to the immigrants’ cause. Apple, Facebook and Google, who employ thousands of foreign software engineers, spoke out about its impact on their business; Elon Musk condemned it in moral terms; Airbnb offered free housing to those caught up in the maelstrom. Chris Sacca, an early investor in Twitter, matched his followers and donated $150,000 to the ACLU. Even the NBA got into the act: The Milwaukee Bucks made a point of starting center Thon Maker, a Sudanese immigrant, and the league said it had raised concerns about the executive order with State Department officials.
Republicans have been largely silent, though Sens. Susan Collins, Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake, as well as Reps. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and Justin Amash of Michigan, criticized the president’s move. House Speaker Paul Ryan, despite speaking out against a similar proposal during the campaign, hailed Trump for making “sure we are doing everything possible to know exactly who is entering our country.”
For the president, who limited his comments on the ban to his Saturday afternoon remarks, the optics were not good. One of the first people detained, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, was an Iraqi interpreter who served the U.S. military for over a decade. (“What I do for this country? They put the cuffs on,” a tearful Darweesh told reporters at JFK after his release.) One Iranian woman barred from the United States, Samira Asgari, was coming to Harvard Medical School to work on a cure for tuberculosis. (“I was pretty excited to join @soumya_boston’s lab but denied boarding due to my Iranian nationality,” she tweeted. “Feeling safer?”) The media was flooded all day with tales of shocked families finding themselves locked out of the United States; if any of them were terrorists, they were awfully well-disguised.
It’s too early to say how the politics of all this will play out, but as a sheer matter of governance, it augurs poorly. Other administrations might have carefully briefed reporters on the details of the new policy, prepared the public, put exemptions in place, clarified exactly who would be affected. They might have crafted an outreach strategy to key allies to explain the president’s reasoning and hear out any concerns. The Trump team seems to have done none of that.
White House aides briefing the press on Saturday afternoon claimed they had worked for weeks with key officials in the relevant agencies, but there were few signs of that. The Department of Homeland Security first said the ban applied to green-card holders (i.e., permanent legal residents), then walked it back. Aides later said that green-card holders would have to submit to a consular interview before exiting the United States, but nobody has explained exactly how that works. And the top State Department official in charge of consular affairs, veteran Foreign Service officer Michele Bond, was fired last week.
The Trump administration also seemed surprisingly unprepared to argue its case in court. During her hearing, Donnelly reportedly asked the government’s lawyers whether they considered whether those detained—about 200 people, in the ACLU’s estimation—would suffer harm if they were sent back to their home countries. When they didn’t come up with a convincing answer, she responded, “I think the government hasn’t had a full chance to think about this.”
And if the ban was aimed at stopping terrorism, it was oddly off target. It curiously excluded the home countries of the 9/11 hijackers: Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Since 1990, of the 182 radical Islamic terrorists who plotted attacks in the United States or on inbound airplanes, just two entered the U.S. as refugees. Little wonder—since refugees are among the most carefully vetted immigrant groups, and the bulk of them are women and children.
Internationally, the fallout may just be beginning. British Prime Minister Theresa May, fresh off a chummy visit with Trump, criticized it. Iran threatened to retaliate by barring Americans. Iraq, in which the United States still has some 7,000 troops and 2,000 contractors sent to fight ISIS, suggested it might kick them out. Social media accounts linked to the Islamic State were gleefully posting news stories about the ban with little commentary.
The fact that the order was announced on Holocaust Remembrance Day may have been a coincidence, but it was certainly a public relations blunder. A Twitter account methodically posting the names of Jews refused asylum in the United States and later killed in the Holocaust was retweeted thousands of times on Friday, blending into people’s timelines with news about the immigration crackdown, adding to the sense of outrage among Trump’s critics.
If the Trump team is chastened by all this, there’s little sign of it yet. On Saturday, the president’s senior adviser and omnipresent cable news defender, Kellyanne Conway, tweeted: “Get used to it. @POTUS is a man of action and impact. Promises made, promises kept. Shock to the system. And he’s just getting started.”
Donnelly’s stay is only temporary; she made no ruling on whether Trump’s executive order is unconstitutional, as the ACLU claims. And her ruling has no impact on those who have yet to board flights to the United States, and will presumably be barred from doing so. Presidents are usually granted broad authority in setting immigration policy, and the Trump administration can probably retool its order even if the courts take further action.
But on Saturday night, for at least a few hours, the president’s opponents tasted a rare victory. How he’ll react to that is anyone’s guess.