In the two weeks since Donald Trump barred refugees and residents of seven countries from the United States—from the early chaos at airports to the latest judicial ruling against the policy—members of his administration have given inconsistent answers to a persistent question: What specific threat justified these extraordinary measures?
When Trump tweets, as he did on Thursday after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to lift an injunction against his travel ban, that “THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!,” what concretely does he mean?
The president himself has characterized the threat as imminent, with potential evildoers lurking just off America’s shores. When a federal judge first suspended the ban last week, Trump wrote that as a result, “many very bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country.” In explaining why he had been in such a hurry to implement the immigration order, Trump argued, “If the ban were announced with a one week notice, the ‘bad’ would rush into our country during that week.”
U.S. officials, however, have struggled to back up their boss’s assessment. On Wednesday, for instance, Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s top advisers, went on Fox News and claimed that he could give “example after example, chapter and verse” of jihadists who entered the United States from the countries included in the president’s ban: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
But when the host Sean Hannity asked how many people from those seven countries had been implicated “in terror activity in the United States,” Miller said the administration was still “working on putting together a final list.” Though he said that list was “large” and getting larger, he could supply just one example: the Somali refugee who injured several people in an attack at Ohio State University last fall. Perhaps that’s because nationals of the seven countries named in the executive order have killed a total of zero people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil over the last four decades. Some people from some of those places have indeed been convicted of plotting or carrying out non-fatal terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. But the list isn’t actually large. The list of U.S. citizens or permanent residents who have done so is significantly larger.
August Flentje, a lawyer at the Justice Department, similarly sputtered when Ninth-Circuit judges repeatedly pressed him this week for evidence connecting the seven countries with terrorism in the United States. Flentje noted that Congress and the Obama administration had previously identified those countries as hubs of terrorist activity and thus areas of concern for U.S. immigration officials. But he couldn’t explain why the existing vetting system was failing and shouldn’t remain in place while the Trump administration reviewed security procedures, beyond the fact that some Somalis in the United States had been convicted on terrorism charges.
John Kelly, Trump’s new secretary of homeland security, has offered a more convincing explanation for the administration’s approach and urgency: It’s about the stability of the countries in question, not their reputation for mass-producing would-be terrorists. The travel ban, he says, is a temporary pause so that the government can develop new refugee and visa vetting standards—including ways to investigate people’s internet activity, financial information, and cellphone contacts. And these types of records, Kelly argues, are harder to obtain in the targeted countries—most of which are conflict zones—than in other parts of the world, especially since the United States doesn’t have embassies in four of the seven nations.
Then there’s Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka, who describes the threat as more medium-term than near-term. Trump is committed to eradicating Islamic terrorism, whether of the ISIS variety in Syria and Iraq, the al-Qaeda variety in Yemen, or the government-supported variety in Iran, Gorka reasons. And he believes Trump will succeed. But the United States must be prepared for what happens after “we squeeze that balloon.”
As Gorka told Breitbart News Daily, “The whole logic of this executive order is the following: We are going to destroy ISIS. … But as we ramp up, in the near future, our approach to ISIS, what’s going to happen? We are going to see an increase in the movement of jihadis further west, further north, into Europe and across the ocean to America. We don’t want to see them use the immigration streams to insert their people into America so they can do things like the Berlin attack, like the Nice attack, like the Paris attacks.”
Miller, along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and chief strategist Steve Bannon, has also embraced a long-term vision for limiting Muslim immigration to the United States more broadly—essentially treating the current ban as just a first step in that process.
“Our task in this new administration is to prevent what happened in parts of France and Belgium and Germany from happening in the United States, where you have large pockets of radicalization that extend through generations and then become a serious long-term security problem,” Miller said during one appearance on Fox News. “We have to act now to prevent that from happening tomorrow.” Sessions has meanwhile cited, in reference to Syrian refugees, what he calls the “unpleasant but unavoidable fact that bringing in a large unassimilated flow of migrants from the Muslim world creates the conditions possible for radicalization and extremism to take hold.”
On his Breitbart radio show in 2015, Bannon questioned why the U.S. government should expend any resources on more intensive vetting for Syrian refugees. “Should we just take a pause and a hiatus for a number of years on any influx from that area of the world?” he asked. USA Today has more:
On his radio shows, Bannon often provided figures about immigration from Muslim-majority nations that are either exaggerations of disputed numbers or lack basis in fact.
“And some of the statistics are, what, like up to 5-10% believe in radical—in radical jihad. I mean you’re talking literally—they said thousands, hundreds [of] thousands are coming in. Say the number is 3 million,” he said in April 2016. “You start to get some pretty big numbers. Particularly if half of these believe in sharia law or over 60%. Right? I mean the numbers are staggering.”
During a show in December 2015, Bannon told a guest he heard an additional 1 million Muslim immigrants would enter the USA in each of the next two years.
“If we didn’t hit the pause button today, is it already locked up that we’re going to be importing at least a couple of million Muslims whatever happens?” The guest agreed, “Absolutely.”
In truth, the Pew Research Center estimates the U.S. Muslim population is 3.3 million and forecasts that it will double—over the next 36 years, not the next few years. About 100,000 Muslims arrived in the USA each of the past few years, Pew said.
On Thursday, the Ninth-Circuit judges made clear that, whatever the justifications provided for the ban, they weren’t convinced. They wrote: “The Government has pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the Order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States.”