Republicans are struggling to advance their policy agenda in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s confused rollout of a ban on refugees and all travellers from seven Muslim nations entering the United States.
The escalating reaction to Mr Trump’s executive order on immigration is also raising concerns about the workings of his White House staff less than two weeks into the presidency. In private conversations, some establishment Republicans are voicing growing doubts about the administration’s competence.
“Chaos is not sustainable,” said John Weaver, a veteran Republican strategist. “You’re not ultimately going to be able to advance a coherent agenda through Congress if every day is DefCon 1, all-hands-on-deck. They better get that fixed.”
Adding to the tumultuous atmosphere, Mr Trump fired Sally Yates, the acting attorney-general, on Monday night saying she had “betrayed” the Department of Justice by refusing to defend the order in court.
Republicans’ predicament was evident on Tuesday during the House leadership’s weekly press conference where lawmakers sought unsuccessfully to change the subject from the travel ban. Paul Ryan, House Speaker, told reporters that Republicans were moving forward on repealing Obamacare, ending the “war on coal jobs” and overhauling the regulatory process. “We want to pave the way for more growth and higher wages, “ he said.
When reporters asked about Mr Trump’s travel ban, Mr Ryan said tzhe president’s order had erroneously included legal permanent residents of the US — or “green card” holders — and those with special visas, such as former interpreters for the US military.
But Mr Ryan said he had been reassured by a private conversation on Monday with John Kelly, secretary for homeland security. “On a going-forward basis, he’ll make sure that things are done correctly,” the speaker said, adding that the order’s confused rollout was “regrettable”.
Mr Kelly said on Tuesday, in his first public remarks on the matter, that it was “not a Muslim ban”.
Mr Ryan said tighter vetting procedures are needed for refugees and other travellers from the seven nations covered by the ban: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.
The uproar over the travel order introduced late on Friday afternoon has grown by the day. Spontaneous airport protests erupted over the weekend in major cities, including New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and Dallas. On Monday, former president Barack Obama joined the critics, saying: “American values are at stake.”
The measure also drew fire from more than 1,000 US diplomats who signed an unusual cable of dissent and the chief executives of major multinationals, such as Coca-Cola, Ford and Goldman Sachs.
[The travel ban] could become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism
In a worrisome development for the White House, chairmen of both the Senate armed services and foreign relations committees, John McCain and Robert Corker, criticised the ban. In a joint statement, Mr McCain and Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator, said Mr Trump’s initiative could “become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism”.
In total, more than two dozen Republican senators and congressmen have spoken out against the travel restrictions.
Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona called the executive order “unacceptable”; Nebraska’s Senator Ben Sasse labelled it “too broad”; and Dean Heller of Nevada said he was “deeply troubled by the appearance of a religious ban”.
Aside from the politics, Republican elected officials expressed ire over the way the executive order was introduced — particularly the lack of co-ordination between the White House and government agencies.
Mr Corker told reporters he had not seen Mr Trump’s order until after the president signed it, while Chuck Grassley, the Republican head of the Senate judiciary committee, said he was not involved.
Senate aides also reported brimming frustration inside the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State, where officials were still struggling with interpreting and implementing the order.
“People are frustrated,” said one senior Republican aide. “[The executive order] was Friday — and now it’s Tuesday. And we still can’t get straight answers,” he said, noting that morale was low in the agency departments.
People are frustrated. [The executive order] was Friday — and now it’s Tuesday. And we still can’t get straight answers
Behind closed doors, Republican senators and representatives are more caustic, flinging accusations that the new White House team was overrun by “Kremlinology” and “back-stabbing”.
Particularly concerning have been reports that Mr Kelly, whose agency is responsible for border controls, was not consulted about the sweeping changes to visa and refugee programs, and has faced resistance to his hiring choices.
While the fallout in elite circles has been intense, Mr Trump’s voters approve of his actions, according to Trent Lott, a former Senate majority leader. “People in the heartland, people who voted for Trump, are saying: Yes!” he said in a telephone interview.
Mr Lott rebuffed the critics who say the White House is hobbled by divisions between traditional Republicans such as Reince Priebus, chief of staff, and nationalists led by Steve Bannon, former Breitbart publisher.
“They probably need more staff,” Lott said. “I’ve been trying to work with them on infrastructure and it’s hard to know who you need to talk to. They need some more experienced, substantive people.”