President Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ has sparked an outpouring of international outrage. Lost in the noise was a hint at the inner workings of his administration.
A li Vayeghan had waited 12 years to be reunited with his son, but on January 27 the long wait was almost over. At 7pm his flight from Tehran touched down at Los Angeles International Airport, clasping his green card. From there Mr. Vayeghan should have gone to Indiana, where his son, a US citizen, works as a nurse.
But Mr. Vayeghan, 52, never made it past security. Instead, he was turned around and placed on a flight to Dubai, before returning to Iran. President Donald Trump had revoked his right to enter the US while he was in mid-air.
The executive order responsible for Mr. Vayeghan’s ordeal suspended the entire US refugee admission system for 120 days, indefinitely halted the Syrian refugee resettlement programme and banned entry from seven Muslim-majority countries perceived to pose a serious terrorist threat - Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan - for 90 days. Entitled ‘Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States’, it quickly became known as the ‘Muslim ban’.
Amid a chorus of criticism from world leaders, Barack Obama flouted convention by issuing a statement decrying the ban, just 10 days after leaving office. Naureen Shah, director of Security and Human Rights at Amnesty International USA, told The World Weekly the order “shows a total disregard for US legal obligations toward people fleeing persecution”. Within hours, lawyers flocked to US airports to volunteer their services to those affected. Outside, thousands of protesters gathered to voice their opposition.
Thousands of lawyers responded... We mobilised teams of volunteer attorneys at several airports around the country.”
Mr. Trump’s presidency has already triggered a groundswell of popular protest. Reports suggest that up to 4.2 million demonstrators attended last week’s Women’s Marches in the US alone, making it by some estimates the largest single day of protest in US history. Civil dissent has not been seen on this scale since the anti-Iraq War demonstrations in 2003. Seattle-based journalist Kate Clark told TWW she expects protests to continue “every weekend for the foreseeable future”.
The president’s conviction that the ban makes Americans safer will do little to quell the unrest. No refugee from the countries included in the ban has ever killed anyone in a terrorist attack on American soil, and a Reuters/Ipsos poll published this week indicated that less than a third of Americans now feel safer. Indeed, Mr. Trump’s ban may raise the terror threat. Republican Senator John McCain told CBS that the order “will give ISIS some more propaganda”.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll also indicated that roughly 50% of Americans support President Trump’s ban.
The chaotic scenes at airports across the United States were, in part, a result of the order’s sketchy implementation. Initially, pre-approved refugees, as well as up to 500,000 people holding valid green cards, were detained and denied entry. Though the White House later backtracked on this, it has been accused of not properly vetting the order and actively excluding experts from the decision-making process.
The lack of coordination offers a glimpse at the power dynamics inside President Trump’s administration. The Department for Homeland Security (DHS), the agency in charge of America’s borders, was apparently unaware of the full extent of the order until Mr. Trump appeared on screen to sign it. DHS lawyers later determined that the ban did not apply to green-card holders and permanent residents, but they were then overruled by the president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
The State Department was also bypassed. Despite Rex Tillerson's confirmation as secretary of state this week, the department has been rendered impotent by a Trumpian purge of the senior leadership last week. As TWW went to press, it had not issued a daily briefing since the day before Mr. Trump’s inauguration and a leaked dissent cable, asserting that the ban would categorically not make America safer, had garnered over 1,000 signatures from US diplomats.
For many of those who think Mr. Trump is testing the strength of the US’ checks and balances, the most concerning incident yet was the dismissal of Sally Yates, the acting attorney-general, on Monday. Ms. Yates had released a statement claiming that she was “not convinced that the executive order is lawful”, urging members of the Department of Justice not to execute it. In a manner befitting the president’s showbusiness background, Ms. Yates was promptly told “you’re fired”, and that she had “betrayed” her own department.
In short, Mr. Trump is governing over the head of his departments, consolidating power in a small cadre of allies. Foremost among these is Mr. Bannon, one-time head of firebrand, far-right news website Breitbart. Amid the furore surrounding the immigration order, Mr. Bannon was elevated to a permanent position on the National Security Council on Saturday, at the expense of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence. The move blurs the line between politics and national security.
Presidential advisers have in the past been invited to sit in at the NSC on an ad-hoc basis, but formalising Mr. Bannon’s elevation in this way is unprecedented. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to Colin Powell when he was George W. Bush’s secretary of state, told TWW that the move is “dangerous, stupid, and destructive of the decision-making process”.
Speaking after Mr. Trump’s election victory in November, Mr. Bannon declared himself a “Leninist”. The Russian revolutionary, he said, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Mr. Trump, who campaigned on a promise to “Drain The Swamp”, appears to welcome such an approach.
The way Mr. Bannon marshalled the ‘Muslim Ban’ highlights the extent to which his hatred of ‘the establishment’ and - in the words of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi - his blatant white nationalism have seeped into the lifeblood of the Trump White House. The ban, Colonel Wilkerson said, is “an atrocious display of Mr. Bannon’s main belief that white Aryans are all that really count in the world and all the rest should be our slaves or dead”.
Mr. Vayeghan has since been permitted to return to the United States. For citizens from Iran, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, his victory is a temporary one. As long as Mr. Bannon is pulling the strings, opponents will fear that the US risks lurching towards bigotry and intolerance.