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White House Actions Dominate News Cycles

Jan 30, 2017
Originally published on January 30, 2017 7:49 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump said over the weekend that his order stopping visitors from seven countries, and all refugees, was working well. At American airports over the weekend, there was confusion, court battles and protests. The status of green card holders, among others, is unclear this morning. They were included in the order, but some are now getting in.

Pegah Ebrahimi is among the many who feels a personal stake here. She's a lawyer who works for the attorney general of Virginia. She's a green card holder, originally from Iran. Her family moved to Canada about a decade ago. And she has dual Canadian and Iranian citizenship.

PEGAH EBRAHIMI: I have felt like a prisoner since Friday, even though I live in the same city that I have lived in for the past six years. I had no plans of traveling. But to know that you can't leave the country is an absolute horrifying feeling to have.

INSKEEP: It's a dramatic human story, a dramatic security story, a dramatic political story, a dramatic American story. And NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is on the line.

Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So why was there so much confusion over the weekend?

LIASSON: Well, there was a lot of confusion, as you said, mostly because it wasn't clear what to do with people who were in transit and because customs and border officials seemed to be enforcing the executive order differently at different airports. And then there was the question of what to do with people with green cards. The Department of Homeland Security originally wanted to exempt green card holders. The White House overruled that. But now, as you said, they seem to have backed off to say that green card holders will not be affected.

The initial court challenges went against the president. But the executive order has not been adjudicated - the order itself. And the courts will have to decide whether this is a religious test or not. And the White House is pretty confident about this because the president has a lot of authority over refugee policy, a lot of authority over immigration policy. And in the end, the courts might go his way.

INSKEEP: And let's remember, when you talk about being a religious test, that's what the president originally called for, was a ban on Muslims.

LIASSON: Right.

INSKEEP: What he ended up with was a geographic test.

LIASSON: Right.

INSKEEP: And so the question is whether this counts as religious or not among...

LIASSON: Yes, even though he said that the order says that religious minorities, meaning Christians, can be prioritized.

INSKEEP: Although there are religious minorities who are Muslims in many of these countries.

LIASSON: That's right.

INSKEEP: So we'll find out about that. He's also said it's a temporary order. But the president said during the campaign, we're going to continue this until we have perfect security. It's not clear what that means. Now, what have lawmakers said about all this, Mara?

LIASSON: There have been different reactions from - obviously, from Democrats and Republicans. This has really galvanized the opposition to Trump. There were protests at airports that were spontaneous, unlike the Women's March, which was planned. You have Democratic senators with 2020 ambitions showing up at these airport protests. There's going to be a demonstration tonight at the Supreme Court with Democratic members of Congress.

Republican support has been mixed - a lot of support in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, you had criticism from senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who've criticized the policy as being counterproductive. They agree with national security experts who say this could backfire on the United States' national security because it could give ISIS a recruiting tool and send the message that America is at war with Muslims. Other Republican senators, like Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, have basically criticized the way the order was designed - that it caused a lot of confusion.

INSKEEP: Well, how has the White House responded?

LIASSON: The White House is very confident that this is going to be popular with the broader public and not just with Donald Trump's hard-core base. You know, he ran on this ban. He said he'd keep the country safe. The White House believes he's just doing what he said he would do.

We don't have polling yet. But earlier this month, Quinnipiac did take a poll that asked the question, do you support suspending immigration from terror-prone nations? And 48 percent agreed with that. Forty-two percent disagreed.

INSKEEP: So it may depend on how you phrase the question, I suppose.

LIASSON: Yes.

INSKEEP: Now there's...

LIASSON: As polling always does.

INSKEEP: There you go. Well, now there's the question, there's so many other issues to deal with, and this is one more issue that has become very polarizing. Jonathan Martin of The New York Times writes over the weekend that Democratic lawmakers are under ever more pressure from their base voters to provide total opposition to this president.

LIASSON: Yes, and you saw that Republican voters had the same thing happen to them during the Obama administration. I think one of the places where this is going to play out - we'll find the answer to this - is when Donald Trump nominates his Supreme Court justice. He has said that it could come on Thursday, possibly earlier.

Right now, that would need 60 votes in the Senate for confirmation, unless the rules are changed - the way Democrats did for other presidential nominations. And the big pressure is going to be on exactly those Democratic senators from red states who are up for re-election in 2018. Republicans are going to be spending many, many millions of dollars to pressure those Democrats to vote for Trump's nomination. And then you've got the base, as you said, pulling back in the other direction.

INSKEEP: Mara, can you help us get started on another area of discussion here? The president has reshaped the National Security Council, which considers major national security issues. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, top military adviser to the president, director of National Intelligence, top intelligence official - they're still around. But they take a half-step back. Steve Bannon, the strategist and media publisher, takes a step in. And he's on the council. What does that say about Bannon's role?

LIASSON: Well, it says that Bannon's role is extremely important and central. He's now a member of the principals committee of the NSC. And as you said, the DNI director and Joint Chiefs - the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is not. He has been the architect of Trump's nationalist, populist ideology, wrote the inaugural address, has been organizing these executive orders. And this is unusual because other top strategists, like Karl Rove or David Axelrod, were not members of the principals committee and didn't sit in on NSC meetings.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks very much, as always.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.