On Friday, President Trump’s Executive Order barred individuals from seven, predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. The legal and moral flaws in the order have already been thoroughly articulated. Likewise, the roughshod manner in which the order was pushed through became clear as chaos ensued at major airports, and lawyers successfully challenged the executive action in court. Less noted, however, has been the fundamental flaws in the Trump administration’s defense of the seven countries listed in the order.
Over the weekend, Trump officials appeared on political talk shows claiming that media coverage of the order had been unfair. NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Trump’s Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, to explain why the ban did not apply to those from countries, such as Saudi Arabia, that have actually been responsible for U.S. terrorist attacks. Priebus pointed the finger back at the Obama Administration. President Trump followed up with a press release stating that “[t]he seven countries named in the Executive Order are the same countries previously identified by the Obama Administration as sources of terror.”
As with so much of the Trump Presidency’s public statements to date, the claim disintegrates upon scrutiny. While the Obama Administration did identify the seven countries listed in Trump’s Executive Order as “countries of concern,” it did so in a very different context, dealing with very different kinds of travelers, involving different types of risks, and for a very different purpose.
Back in 2015, the Obama Administration supported Congressional passage of the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act. The Act modified the requirements for nationals of 38 countries who, prior to that point, had the special privilege of being able to enter the U.S. without a visa. Under the act, nationals from any of those countries would, for the first time, need a visa to enter the U.S. if they had recently traveled to Syria and Iraq. (Sudan and Iran were also included on the basis that the State Department identifies them as “State Sponsors of Terror,” and Libya, Somalia and Yemen were subsequently added to the list.) Those who had dual nationality with one of the seven “countries of concern” would also be required to seek a visa to enter the U.S., regardless of whether they had recently been in one of those countries. But the bulk of the individuals affected by the change were sole nationals from Visa Waiver countries including the likes of the U.K., Ireland, and Australia.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, officials were concerned that instability in Syria and Iraq had attracted “thousands of foreign fighters, including many from [Visa Waiver] countries” who might then travel to the U.S. for the purpose of launching a terrorist attack. In other words, it sought to place a higher level of scrutiny on individuals with citizenship to 38 allied nations (none of them predominantly Muslim) if their recent travel to any of the countries of concern suggested they may have been radicalized. Moreover, the Act did not bar individuals from entry into the U.S., but just removed the special access they previously had, forcing them to go through the same visa application process as everyone else. The Act was also careful to exclude exceptions for those who had traveled to the countries of concern for military, diplomatic, humanitarian, or other legitimate purposes.
Trump’s Executive Order takes the “countries of concern” list and turns it on its head. Rather than raising the barriers to U.S. entry for any national who has dual citizenship with, or has recently traveled to a country of concern, it puts an outright 90-day ban solely on the nationals of those countries, with the possibility of the ban being extended indefinitely.
The painful irony is that a national from one of these countries is more likely to be the victim of terrorism than a perpetrator of it. According to the United Nations, 400,000 Syrians have been killed in their own country in recent years. Sudanese citizens have faced such terror under their own government that the International Criminal Court has an arrest warrant out for their President. And 386 Iraqi civilians were killed by acts of terrorism and violence in December 2016 alone. Yet as data from the think-tank New America shows, not one Syrian, Iraqi, Sudanese, or any other national from a country of concern has killed anyone in a terrorist attack in the U.S. going back to at least 9/11.
If the Trump Administration had in fact wanted to find an empirical basis for restricting entry to the U.S., there are more rational predictors it could have considered when assessing who might commit a future act of terrorism. A survey of the nationalities of those who have actually committed fatal terrorist attacks on U.S. soil might have been a logical enough starting point, with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan high on the list. Yet according to the self-proclaimed architect of the order, former New York Mayor and Trump confidante, Rudi Giuliani, Saudi Arabia was excluded on account of his belief that Saudi Arabia has been reformed since 9/11. As to the omission of Pakistan from the list, Giuliani told Fox News that it is a country he would “have to know more about”—which gives one little confidence in the reasons Trump’s advisors chose to draw the lines where they did. Still, it is questionable the degree to which nationality (or, in this case, nationality as a surrogate for religion) is even a logical predictor in the first place. One could readily imagine that a given individual’s experiences in certain suburbs of France or Belgium would make them more susceptible to involvement in future terrorist activity than the country of citizenship listed on their passport.
Amid the multitude of problems with the order, the inaccuracies regarding the Trump administration’s defense of it may seem trivial. But it is part of a pattern of disregard for the facts that is rapidly becoming the hallmark of the Trump administration’s relationship with the American public. Paired with this administration’s frontal assault on the media, we are entering a moment where a vital ingredient of democracy – citizen access to the truth about its government’s actions – is under threat. And we are just over one week into Trump’s four-year term.