Washington: Donald Trump on Sunday refused to bear responsibility for a hypothetical terrorist attack on the US, telling followers they should “blame” a federal judge and the American court system for suspending his ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries as it weighs its lawfulness.
“Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday, two days after James Robart suspended his ban on refugees and travel and one day after a panel of judges denied the White House’s emergency appeal to reinstate the ban.
“If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!”
The US for years has had some of the most rigorous vetting for visas and refugees in the world, and airlines have said travel has not yet recovered to levels that were normal before Trump’s order.
The president’s tweets were the latest in his running attacks on courts. Earlier Sunday, vice-president Mike Pence said Trump had “every right to criticize the other two branches of government” and was not “questioning the legitimacy of the judge”.
Trump added: “I have instructed Homeland Security to check people coming into our country VERY CAREFULLY. The courts are making the job very difficult!”
On Sunday morning, the president’s allies scrambled to his defence while his opponents hailed the courts as a barricade against a leader who Bernie Sanders said was moving the US “in a very authoritarian direction”.
Trump, who was spending the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, had been unusually silent. The president had filled the week with morning tweets, sent like clockwork, defending his executive order to suspend travel from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days, to halt the US refugee program for 120 days, and to shut down the Syrian refugee program indefinitely.
Signed nine days ago, the order caused chaos at airports around the US as officials detained and deported travelers who would have been allowed into the country only a day earlier, and protesters gathered.
Little more than a day after the order was signed, a federal judge in New York shut down a first provision, beginning the legal battle over whether Trump had violated the constitution’s limits on presidential power. On Friday Robart shut down the whole order temporarily.
On Saturday, Trump attacked Robart in a number of tweets, calling him a “so-called” judge. On Sunday, after the ninth US circuit court of appeals in San Francisco rejected the government’s application for an emergency stay, Pence was sent as an emissary from the White House to several talkshows. He defended Trump’s personal attack on the judge.
“The president has every right to criticize the other two branches of government,” Pence told at the press meet. “I think people find it very refreshing that they not only understand this president’s mind, but they understand how he feels.”
The former governor of Indiana also maintained that Trump’s order would survive the courts. “We remain very confident that the president’s actions are on solid constitutional and legal grounds,” he said, adding falsely that a Boston judge had “upheld the constitutionality of the president’s actions”.
On Friday, before the Seattle decision, a Boston court ruled narrowly in Trump’s favor on whether to extend a block on the travel ban. The courts have not yet decided whether Trump’s order is constitutional.
Like House speaker Paul Ryan, Pence also insisted that the travel ban was “not a religious test”. Attorneys arguing against the ban have noted that the text of the order allows for preference of religious minorities from the Muslim-majority countries named; that Trump has explicitly said he wants to prioritize Christian refugees; and that the president has repeatedly spoken about destroying “radical Islamic terrorism”.
“The president was reflecting on the fact that Christians who have faced persecution across the wider Middle East,” Pence said, adding that the order was motivated by security concerns.
Justice department lawyers have however struggled to show evidence for such fears in court. Instead, they have argued that the president has “unreviewable authority” to keep any class of non-citizen out of the country, a view that challenges the powers of the courts.
Pence said federal agencies would comply with the court orders. Some critics, however, still fear creeping authoritarianism from Trump’s White House. Chief among those warning about the balance of powers on Sunday was the independent Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who said Congress and the courts should actively check each other and the president.
He said, “We have a president I fear is moving us in a very authoritarian direction, a president who apparently has contempt for the entire judiciary.”
The senator, who rose to national prominence in a hard-fought but losing campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, said Trump had led the US into “a dangerous and unprecedented moment in American history”. The onus would be on Republican leaders, he said, to use Congress as a shield for the liberties of ordinary Americans.
“I would hope that people like Mitch McConnell have the courage to stand up to Trump’s movement toward authoritarianism,” Sanders said.
The White House and its other ally in Congress, Ryan, have insisted the ban is not a religious test. “We can’t shut down travel,” McConnell added. “We certainly don’t want Muslim allies who’ve fought with us in countries overseas to not be able to travel to the United States. We’ve got to be careful about this.”
The Republican leader also broke with the White House over Trump’s personal insult to a judge. “I think it’s best not to single out judges for criticism,” he said. “We all get disappointed from time to time from the outcomes of courts.”
McConnell’s caution was a sign of dissent within his party over the anti-immigrant nationalism that has emerged from Trump’s first two weeks in office. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a Republican critic of Trump, took particular issue with the president’s attack on Judge Robart.
The ninth circuit gave Trump and the states opposing him, Washington and Minnesota, until 3pm PST on Monday to present new arguments in the case.
According to White House reporters, the president began Sunday at his golf course in south Florida, far from the courtroom fray or the airports where refugees, visa holders and dual citizens have started to return. He spent the previous evening at a gala at his Mar-a-Lago resort, which was dressed up to themes of 18th-century aristocracy for the occasion.