WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US government began to roll back Donald Trump’s contentious travel ban targeting citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries on Saturday (Feb 4), after a stinging legal defeat for the new president.
Government agencies and major global airlines said they would recognize valid visas and cease enforcing Trump’s order, after a federal judge in Washington state put a block on the measures pending a wider legal review.
Thousands of people from London and Paris to New York and Washington staged fresh protests against the Republican leader, who took office just two weeks ago vowing to shake up American politics as usual.
The high-profile setback for his immigration order provoked Trump to fire off a harsh attack on the judge – almost unprecedented for a sitting president.
“The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” Trump tweeted early on Saturday from his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida, where he is spending the weekend.
US District Judge James Robart – an appointee of Republican president George W. Bush – issued a temporary stay on Trump’s immigration orders late on Friday.
On Saturday, the US government began complying.
The State Department told visa holders from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen that they are again allowed to travel as long as the documents had not been “physically cancelled.”
The department earlier said up to 60,000 people had their visas revoked as a result of Trump’s order, although a Justice Department attorney put the number at closer to 100,000.
The Department of Homeland Security – which runs border agencies – also said it would cease implementing the order, but noted that the Justice Department planned to challenge the court ruling “at the earliest possible time.”
“The President’s order is intended to protect the homeland, and he has the constitutional authority and responsibility to protect the American people,” said a White House statement late on Friday.
The restrictions on all refugees and travellers from the seven countries went into effect a week ago, wreaking havoc at airports across America and leaving travellers trying to reach the United States in limbo.
The political backlash for Trump has been equally severe, with the order fuelling numerous mass protests and internal White House infighting.
In Washington, demonstrators marched to Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court, chanting “Donald, Donald, can’t you see – we don’t want you in DC!” Some held signs that read “Brown is the new white” and “Love knows no borders.”
About 3,000 people rallied in New York, while an estimated 10,000 people turned out in London, and smaller gatherings took place in Paris, Berlin, Stockholm and Barcelona.
Trump was forced to defend a botched rollout of the plan – which called his government’s competence into question – and fired the government’s acting attorney-general for refusing to defend the order in court.
His approval rating has sunk to the lowest level on record for any new president.
His latest rhetorical outburst is only likely to stoke the controversy.
Presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama have criticised court rulings, but have rarely, if ever, criticised individual judges.
“I can’t think of anything like it in the past century and a half at least,” constitutional scholar and Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe told AFP.
“It’s not exactly contempt of court, but it certainly is contemptuous,” said Tribe, who taught two sitting Supreme Court justices as well as Obama – whom he later advised.
“It conveys a lack of respect for the independent judiciary that bodes ill for the country’s future as long as Trump occupies the presidency,” Tribe said.
Democrats in Congress were swift in their condemnation of Trump’s remarks, while Republicans notably did not rush to his defence.
“This ‘so-called’ judge was nominated by a ‘so-called’ President & was confirmed by the ‘so-called’ Senate. Read the ‘so-called’ Constitution,” tweeted California Democratic lawmaker Adam Schiff.
The White House has argued that the travel bans are needed in order to prevent terror attacks on the United States.
Experts from the fields of intelligence, counterterrorism and diplomacy say the ban is at best ineffective and at worst fuels hatred of the United States in the Middle East.
But cracking down on Islamist terror has become an organising principle for Trump supporters and the White House has consistently sought to underscore the risks posed to Americans.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed 48 per cent of voters favoured “suspending immigration from ‘terror prone’ regions.”
“When a country is no longer able to say who can, and who cannot , come in & out, especially for reasons of safety &.security – big trouble!” Trump tweeted on Saturday.