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Trump Administration Doubles Down On Muslim Ban Amid Massive Protests

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration on Sunday tempered a key element of his move to ban entry of refugees and people from seven Muslim-majority countries in the face of mounting criticism even from some prominent Republicans and protests that drew tens of thousands in major American cities.

Trump signed the directive on Friday, but the policy appeared to be evolving on the fly. Democrats and a growing number of Republicans assailed the move and foreign leaders condemned it amid court challenges and tumult at U.S. airports.

The president’s critics have said his action unfairly singled out Muslims, violated U.S. law and the Constitution, and defiled America’s historic reputation as hospitable to immigrants.

In a fresh defense of the action on Sunday, Trump said his directive was “not about religion” but keeping America safe. Trump has presented the policy as a way to protect the country from the threat of Islamist militants.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in a statement that people from the seven countries who hold so-called green cards as lawful permanent U.S. residents would not be blocked from returning to the United States from overseas, as some had been after the directive.

All green card holders who were detained at U.S. airports had been admitted into the country by late Sunday, a U.S. official familiar with the process told Reuters. The source could not provide a figure of how many people whose re-entry had been delayed, in some cases for hours.

Outside the White House, where some viewing stands from Trump’s Jan. 20 inaugural parade still stood, several thousand protesters denounced him, carrying signs such as “Deport Trump” and “Fear is a terrible thing for a nation’s soul.”

Protests also were staged in cities and airports in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Houston, Dallas, and elsewhere.

The Republican president on Friday put a four-month hold on allowing refugees into the country, an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria and a three-month bar on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

Border and customs officials struggled to put Trump’s directive into practice. Confusion persisted over details of implementation, in particular for the people who hold green cards.

Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Trump supporter, said the president’s order had been poorly implemented, particularly for green card holders.

“The administration should immediately make appropriate revisions, and it is my hope that following a thorough review and implementation of security enhancements that many of these programs will be improved and reinstated,” Corker said.

Trump defended his action.

“To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting,” Trump said in a statement on Sunday. “This is not about religion – this is about terror and keeping our country safe. There are over 40 different countries worldwide that are majority Muslim that are not affected by this order.”

He added: “We will again be issuing visas to all countries once we are sure we have reviewed and implemented the most secure policies over the next 90 days.”

The department said on Saturday Trump’s action did apply to people with green cards who were returning to the United States from the seven nations, while a White House official said green card holders who had left the United States and wanted to return would have to visit a U.S. embassy or consulate to undergo additional screening.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus then went on the Sunday morning news programs to say those people would not be blocked.

“As far as green card holders moving forward, it doesn’t affect them,” Priebus said on the NBC program “Meet the Press.”

Priebus added that these green card holders would be subjected to “more questioning” by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents when they try to re-enter the United States “until a better program is put in place over the next several months.”

In an apparent indication that Kelly’s instructions were being implemented, some green card holders arriving in the United States said they had no trouble clearing customs.

Mahdi Tajsarvi, an engineer who lives in Virginia, said he and his wife, Arezoo Hosseini, both Iranian citizens with U.S. green cards, were asked a few routine questions by authorities at Dulles International Airport outside Washington on Sunday evening and let through within a few minutes.

MORE NATIONS MAY BE ADDED

Priebus also said Customs and Border Patrol agents would have “discretionary authority” when they encountered someone arriving who they suspect “is up to no good” from certain nations.

Asked why Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Egypt were not included on Trump’s list, Priebus said that “perhaps other countries needed to be added to an executive order going forward.”

U.S. judges in at least five states blocked federal authorities from enforcing Trump’s directive, but lawyers representing people covered by the order said some authorities were unwilling on Sunday to follow the judges’ rulings.

U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, prominent Republican foreign policy voices, said in a joint statement Trump’s order may do more to help recruit terrorists than improve U.S. security.

“Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism,” they said, adding the United States should not stop green card holders “from returning to the country they call home.”

“This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country,” the added.

Trump blasted the two senators in a Twitter statement, calling them “sadly weak on immigration.”

In a another Twitter message earlier on Sunday, Trump said the United States needed “strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW.”

“Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!” added Trump, who successfully tapped into Americans’ fear of attacks during his election campaign.

Trump’s tweet did not mention that many more Muslims have been killed in the bloody Syrian civil war and other violence in the targeted countries.

Condemnation of Trump’s action poured in from abroad, including from traditional allies of the United States.

In Germany, which has taken in large numbers of people fleeing the Syrian civil war, Chancellor Angela Merkel said the global fight against terrorism was no excuse for the measures and “does not justify putting people of a specific background or faith under general suspicion,” her spokesman said on Sunday.

Canada will offer temporary residency to people stranded in the country as a result of Trump’s executive order on immigration, Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said.

Briefing reporters at the White House on condition of anonymity, a U.S. administration official rejected criticism of the way Trump’s plan had been carried out, saying: “So it really is a massive success story in terms of implementation on every single level.”

Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Republican-led U.S. Senate, had a different view, calling Trump’s administration incompetent.

“One hand doesn’t know what the other is doing,” Schumer said.

“I think banning refugees, banning immigrants, banning religions like Islam or any other religion, is un-American,” said Will Turner, 42, draped in a U.S. flag among a crowd of several thousand people in front of the White House chanting: “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here.”

An official of the conservative billionaire industrialist Koch brothers’ political network of donors criticized Trump’s immigration order at the donors’ winter gathering in Indian Wells, California.

“Our country has benefited tremendously from a history of welcoming people from all cultures and backgrounds. This is a hallmark of free and open societies,” Brian Hooks said in a statement.

Civil rights and some religious groups, activists and Democratic politicians have promised to fight Trump’s order and Schumer said his party would introduce legislation to overturn it. Republicans control both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Priebus said that of 325,000 people who arrived from foreign countries on Saturday, 109 people were detained for further questioning, and most of them were moved out, with just a “couple dozen more that remain” detained.

“It wasn’t chaos,” he said.

Judges in California, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Washington state, each home to international airports, issued their rulings after a similar order was issued on Saturday night by U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly in New York’s Brooklyn borough in a case involving two Iraqis caught by the order as they flew into the country.

Attorneys general from California, New York, 13 other states and Washington, D.C., condemned and pledged to fight what they called Trump’s “dangerous” and “unconstitutional” order.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Cornwell, Steve Holland, Yara Bayoumy, Yeganeh Torbati, Lesley Wroughton, Nathan Frandino in Washington, Richard Cowan in Indian Wells, Calif., Dan Levine in San Francisco; Mica Rosenberg, Jonathan Allen, Melissa Fares, Daniel Trotta, Andrew Chung, Chris Francescani and David Ingram in New York; Andrea Hopkins and Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Andrea Shalal and Andreas Rilke in Berlin, Paul Sandle in London and Daina Beth Solomon in Los Angeles; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Peter Cooney)

IMAGE: Activists gather outside the White House to protest President Donald Trump’s executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

On The Trail With Mike Pence: Putting Out Fires Lit By Trump

If Mike Pence had any doubts about what life would be like on the 2016 Republican presidential ticket with Donald Trump, the past week will have erased them: He is the damage control guy.

The Indiana governor who swore off political mudslinging years ago heard Trump call Democratic rival Hillary Clinton “the devil” and watched him fan the flames of a feud with the parents of a Muslim soldier who died saving U.S. troops in Iraq.

Unlike many vice presidential running mates, the mild-mannered Pence was not tapped as the attack dog in the Nov. 8 presidential election. Trump has that part down pat.

Pence‘s job is harder: softening Trump’s rough edges and limiting the fallout from what many Republicans see as the nominee’s self-inflicted wounds.

A week ago, for example, Pence rowed back on Trump’s blacklist of some media outlets, saying the campaign is discussing changing course.

Last Sunday, as Trump’s dispute with the parents of slain U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan boiled over, Pence issued a statement praising the soldier as an “American hero” and saying that his family “should be cherished by every American.”

On Wednesday, Pence offered his own endorsement to House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, the top U.S. elected Republican, after Trump infuriated many party leaders by declining to endorse Ryan in his re-election bid.

Pence, who swore off negative campaigning after losing a vituperative congressional race in 1990, eschews name calling. Trump, by contrast, delights in using monikers such as “Crooked Hillary” and “the devil” to describe Clinton.

Trump has made clear he values Pence, telling a rally on Thursday in Portland, Maine, that he and his running mate have a “great relationship.”

But Pence must walk a fine line.

Even as he defuses Trump’s verbal bombs, Pence must be careful to show he knows who is boss. He also has to stick to his own principles while not appearing to be trying to undermine the man who chose him as his No. 2.

Should Trump win, Pence, a former congressman, could serve as a conduit to the U.S. Congress. But if Trump loses, Pence could emerge as a possible White House contender for 2020.

Republican strategist Charlie Black said Pence has shown some political deftness.

“He should have expected he would do some of this and provide more of the even-tempered, articulate, measured responses,” Black said.

But Republican strategist Ryan Williams said Pence is in an “impossible spot” and said that Trump’s missteps could cast a shadow over his running mate’s political future.

“Mike Pence is a good Republican but unfortunately he will be associated with the controversies that have ensnared the Trump-Pence ticket and will be tied to whatever the consequences of this election are,” Williams said.

POSITIVE PENCE, TESTY TRUMP

Trump’s off-the-cuff insults and controversial proposals, such as a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States and a plan to build a wall along the Mexican border to keep illegal immigrants out, have made many in the party establishment uneasy.

The Republican nominee’s feud with the Khan family made for an awkward moment for Pence at a campaign event in Carson City, Nevada. A military mother asked Pence how could he tolerate Trump’s disrespect for the armed forces, which prompted boos.

Pence admonished the crowd to tone it down. “Folks, that’s what freedom looks like and that’s what freedom sounds like,” he said before calling Humayun Khan an American hero.

Pence was asked on Thursday by an 11-year-old boy at a North Carolina rally if his role was “softening up” Trump’s policies and words.

Pence replied that he and Trump were “shoulder to shoulder” in the campaign.

Christopher Devine, co-author of the book “The VP Advantage” and an assistant political science professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said that if Trump loses the November election,Pence may try to position himself as a conservative bridge between Trump supporters and traditional Republicans. That may be an added reason for Pence’s cautious approach.

“He has to be very careful about how he handles the defense of Donald Trump,” Devine said.

(Editing by Caren Bohan and Leslie Adler)

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (R) and Indiana Governor Mike Pence (L) wave to the crowd before addressing the crowd during a campaign stop at the Grand Park Events Center in Westfield, Indiana, July 12, 2016. REUTERS/John Sommers II