WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday (Feb 5) defended President Donald Trump's attack on a federal judge who blocked a travel ban on citizens of seven mainly Muslim nations, as the first major legal battle of the Trump administration intensified.
Trump blasted Judge James Robart as a "so-called judge" on Saturday (Feb 4), a day after the Seattle jurist issued a temporary restraining order on the ban.
A US appeals court later on Saturday denied the government's request for an immediate stay of the ruling.
"The president of the United States has every right to criticise the other two branches of government," Pence said on the NBC programme Meet the Press.
It is unusual for a sitting president to attack a member of the judiciary, which the US Constitution designates as a check on the power of the executive branch and Congress.
Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Trump seems intent on precipitating a constitutional crisis.
Some Republicans also expressed discomfort with the situation. "I think it is best not to single out judges for criticism,"Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on CNN's State of the Union programme.
"We all get disappointed from time to time at the outcome in courts on things that we care about. But I think it is best to avoid criticising judges individually."
Republican Senator Ben Sasse, a vocal critic of Trump, was less restrained.
"We don't have so-called judges ... we don't have so-called presidents, we have people from three different branches of government who take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution," he said on ABC News programme This Week.
The ruling by Robart, appointed by former Republican President George W. Bush, along with the decision by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to deny the government's request for an immediate stay dealt a blow to Trump barely two weeks into his presidency.
It could also be the precursor to months of legal challenges to Trump's push to clamp down on immigration, including through the construction of a wall on the US-Mexican border.
The businessman-turned-politician, who during his presidential campaign called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, has vowed to reinstate the travel ban on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen and a 120-day bar on all refugees.
He says the measures are needed to protect the United States from Islamist militants. Critics say they are unjustified and discriminatory.
The legal limbo will prevail at least until the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rules on the government's application for a stay of Robart's ruling. The court is now awaiting further submissions from the states of Washington and Minnesota on Sunday, and from the government on Monday.
The final filing is due at 1700 PST on Monday (9am Tuesday, Singapore time).
The uncertainty has created what may be a short-lived opportunity for travellers from the seven affected countries to get into the United States.
"This is the first time I try to travel to America. We were booked to travel next week but decided to bring it forward after we heard," said a Yemeni woman, recently married to a US citizen, who boarded a plane from Cairo to Turkey on Sunday to connect with a US-bound flight. She declined to be named for fear it could complicate her entry to the United States.
Reacting to the latest court ruling, Iraqi government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said: "It is a move in the right direction to solve the problems that it caused."
Trump's Jan 27 travel restrictions have drawn protests in the United States, provoked criticism from US allies and created chaos for thousands of people who have, in some cases, spent years seeking asylum.
In his ruling on Friday, Robart questioned the use of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States as a justification for the ban, saying no attacks had been carried out on US soil by individuals from the seven affected countries since then.
For Trump's order to be constitutional, Robart said, it had to be "based in fact, as opposed to fiction".
The 9/11 attacks were carried out by hijackers from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon, whose nationals were not affected by the order.
In a series of tweets on Saturday, Trump attacked "the opinion of this so-called judge" as ridiculous.
"What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?" he asked.
Trump told reporters at his private Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida late on Saturday: "We'll win. For the safety of the country we'll win."
The Justice Department appeal criticised Robart's legal reasoning, saying it violated the separation of powers and stepped on the president's authority as commander-in-chief.
The appeal said the state of Washington lacked standing to challenge the order and denied that the order "favors Christians at the expense of Muslims."
The US State Department and Department of Homeland Security said they were complying with Robart's order and many visitors are expected to start arriving on Sunday, while the government said it expects to begin admitting refugees again on Monday.
A spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, Leonard Doyle, confirmed on Sunday that about 2,000 refugees are ready to travel to the United States. "We expect a small number of refugees to arrive in the US on Monday, Feb 6.
They are mainly from Jordan and include people fleeing war and persecution in Syria," he said in an email.
Iraqi Fuad Sharef, his wife and three children spent two years obtaining US visas. They had packed up to move to America last week, but were turned back to Iraq after a failed attempt to board a US-bound flight from Cairo.
On Sunday, the family checked in for a Turkish Airlines flight to New York from Istanbul. "Yeah, we are very excited. We are very happy," Sharef told Reuters TV. "Finally, we have been cleared. We are allowed to enter the United States."
Rana Shamasha, 32, an Iraqi refugee in Lebanon, was due to travel to the United States with her two sisters and mother on Feb 1 to join relatives in Detroit until the trip was cancelled as a result of the travel ban.
She is now waiting to hear from UN officials overseeing their case.
"If they tell me there is a plane tomorrow morning, I will go. If they tell me there is one in an hour, I will go,"she told Reuters by telephone in Beirut. "I no longer have a house here, work, or anything," she said.