WASHINGTON – Without fanfare, President Trump signed a scaled-back version of his controversial ban on many foreign travelers Monday, hoping to avoid a new round of lawsuits and outrage while fulfilling a central campaign promise. His order still bars new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries and temporarily shuts down America’s refugee program.
The revised order, signed with none of the flourish of his first version, eliminates some of the most contentious aspects in an effort to surmount the court challenges that are sure to come. Trump’s first order, issued just a week after his inauguration, was halted by federal courts.
The new one leaves Iraq off the list of banned countries – at the urging of U.S. military and diplomatic leaders – but still affects would-be visitors and immigrants from Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Libya. It also makes clear that current visa holders will not be impacted, and it removes language that would give priority to religious minorities – a provision some interpreted as a way to help Christians get into the U.S. while excluding Muslims.
The order won’t take effect until March 16 despite earlier warnings from Trump and his aides that any delay would put national security at risk by allowing the entry of “bad ‘dudes’ ” who want to harm the country.
The changes underscore the very different position the president finds himself in.
Five weeks ago, Trump dropped the first order with a bang, catching lawmakers and members of his administration by surprise. He signed the order in a high-profile ceremony at the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stood by.
This time around, the president skipped the usual public ceremony altogether. Instead, the administration chose to have Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions serve as the public faces of the rollout at a brief press announcement.
“I think today was about the implementation of it,” said Press Secretary Sean Spicer – at a briefing off camera.
Legal experts say the new order addresses some of the constitutional concerns raised by a federal appeals court about the initial ban but leaves room for more legal challenges.
“It’s much clearer about how it doesn’t apply to groups of immigrants with more clearly established constitutional rights,” said University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck. “That’s a really important step.”
Trump officials say the goal hasn’t changed: keeping would-be terrorists out of the United States while the government reviews vetting systems for refugees and visa applicants from certain parts of the world.
Tillerson said, “It is the president’s solemn duty to protect the American people, and with this order President Trump is exercising his rightful authority to keep our people safe.”
The original travel ban led to instant chaos at airports as Homeland Security officials scrambled to interpret how it was to be implemented and some travelers were detained before being sent back overseas or blocked from getting on airplanes abroad. The order quickly became the subject of several legal challenges and was put on hold last month by a federal judge in Washington state.
The president repeatedly insisted he would continue to fight for the original order in court, even as aides worked to craft a new one. In the end, they chose to rescind the old order – though Spicer maintained the first was “100 percent legal and constitutional.”
Notably absent from Trump’s revised ban are repeated references to the death toll from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Critics of the original had noted the president appeared to use those attacks as evidence of danger from certain foreigners despite the fact that none of the men who hijacked jetliners that day were from any of the seven banned countries.
House Speaker Paul Ryan commended the administration and Secretary Kelly “for their hard work on this measure to improve our vetting standards.”
“This revised executive order advances our shared goal of protecting the homeland,” Ryan said.
The White House dropped Iraq from the list of targeted countries following pressure from the Pentagon and State Department, which noted Iraq’s role in fighting the Islamic State group. An Iraqi spokesman said the change marks a “positive step” and shows the countries have a “real partnership.”
The new order does not address concerns raised in a Homeland Security intelligence analysis obtained last month by The Associated Press that concluded there was insufficient evidence that citizens of the originally banned countries posed a terror threat to the U.S. The administration has played down the significance of that report.
Trump’s new order reinstates his four-month ban on all refugees from around the world and keeps in place his plan to reduce the number of refugees to be let into the United States this budget year to 50,000. Syrians are also no longer subjected to an indefinite ban, despite Trump’s insistence as a candidate that they pose a serious security threat.
Removing language that would give priority to religious minorities helps address concerns that the initial ban was discriminatory, but its continued focus on Muslim-majority countries leaves the appearance that the order is a “Muslim ban,” Vladeck said.
“There’s still going to be plenty of work for the courts to do,” he said.
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project said the group will move “very quickly” to try to block the new order from taking effect, either by amending the existing lawsuits that blocked Trump’s original ban or seeking a new injunction.
“The only way to actually fix the Muslim ban is not to have a Muslim ban,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the project.
Associated Press reporters Julie Pace and Sadie Gurman contributed to this report.