On Sunday, President Trump declared that “if something happens”—the “something” in question, implicitly, being an Islamist terrorist attack—Americans should blame the “court system” and James Robart, the federal judge who temporarily stopped the Trump administration from enforcing its 90-day ban on people from seven majority-Muslim countries.
To imply that federal judges should be blamed for the consequences of following the law, or that the “court system” makes America unsafe, shows alarming contempt for the United States Constitution. To see a president engage in preemptive blame shifting at this early date in his tenure, as if he were unaware of the courts when he pledged to succeed at counterterrorism, inspires no confidence among those worried that he’s in over his head.
And while Trump ought to be concerned about terrorism, which remains a threat, his rhetoric would be easier to take if he weren’t unwittingly making his country less safe.
First, Trump’s executive order shows an economic illiterate’s disregard for opportunity cost. At the stroke of a pen, he ensured that the parts of the U.S. government that vet immigrants, whether at foreign consulates or U.S. ports of entry, would spend months of additional time and effort on tens of thousands of people who’ve already been through years of vetting. It would be as if TSA forced a bunch of people who’d already gone through security to line up again for screening without realizing that less time and attention would be paid to folks who’ve not been screened. What’s more, are new hurdles for, say, Iranian grandparents or Libyan children who aren’t even old enough to have been alive on 9/11, possibly the best use of scarce resources? How many additional smugglers from unaffected countries slipped through customs last week while agents were busy handcuffing Green Card holders? If you were a “bad guy” from an unaffected country like Saudi Arabia, what better time to try slipping into the United States than the chaos of last week? And who focuses on countries that pose terror risks without listing Pakistan?
Second, Trump’s executive order will make it more difficult for the United States to find locals to work with in affected foreign countries—cooperation that America needs if it’s going to defeat ISIS or prevent attacks by ISIS or al-Qaeda. As former CIA Director Michael Hayden put it in the Washington Post, “In the Middle East, with its honor-based cultures, it’s easier to recruit someone we have been shooting at than it is to recruit someone whose society has been insulted.” Fallout can already be seen in Iraq, where pro-American forces have been undermined.
Third, Trump’s order relied on political advisers like Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller while bypassing many expert federal employees who could have anticipated weaknesses in the policy and greatly improved on it. As Ben Wittes put it, “in the rational pursuit of security objectives, you don’t marginalize your expert security agencies and fail to vet your ideas through a normal interagency process.”
Fourth, while Trump’s order won’t magically make ordinary Muslims into jihadists, it will make them “more likely to see the U.S. government as hostile and worry that any cooperation or interaction with law enforcement could make them targets of harassment or worse. Successful counterterrorism depends on community support, and the Executive Order drives communities away from government.”
Those are some of the ways that Trump’s order makes the United States less safe. Surveying his performance to his point, there are many other reasons for concern, too. Trump ran the most inept transition into the White House in memory, skipping many of the daily intelligence briefings offered to him and failing to fill dozens of key positions. He is needlessly alienating U.S. allies like Australia and Mexico. He appears ignorant of what exactly the “One China” policy entails and has nevertheless courted conflict with Beijing over it in a break with decades of bipartisan consensus. He elevated Steve Bannon, a highly ideological political adviser with a hankering for right-wing nationalism, to the National Security Council with an executive order that, according to the New York Times, he didn’t read before signing.
And that, too, is only a partial reckoning.
A subset of Trump’s supporters insisted that he should be taken seriously, not literally—that his tough rhetoric on immigration and national security was meant to signal his seriousness about those issues, not that he literally believed his own rhetoric. So far, however, it appears as though Trump should have been taken literally: various courses that he has pursued suggest that he has little grasp of key facts. And whatever his intentions, his unserious actions are unlikely to improve anything so much as the approval of the part of his base that is most interested in red meat.
“I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans,” Trump said on election night, adding that he would reach out to Americans who opposed him for their advice and help. The speech was pitch-perfect—easily the classiest moment of his campaign. But he has not reached out to his opponents for help, and so far, he has shunned large parts of the bureaucracy there to serve him, too. The effect is a president who is flailing and a country that is less safe because of him.