Stephen K. Bannon. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

The furor over President Trump’s new immigration ban continues to grow, as Trump has now fired the acting attorney general for saying she questioned its legality and would not defend it in court. Faced with an international outpouring of opposition — including rising consternation among congressional Republicans — the measure’s chief architect, Steve Bannon, has responded with a crescendo of bluster and defiance, blaming the controversy on out-of-touch media elites, which probably endears Bannon to Trump, who shows no public signs of budging.

Yet new reporting indicates that other members of Trump’s team may be going wobbly about the ban, and that Republicans are coming to view the current situation as untenable. Axios reports this morning:

Republican sources tell us that the Department of Homeland Security may issue “implementation guidance” that would allow for softening, and even policy changes, to President Trump’s travel restrictions on migrants. The White House insists that any further guidance wouldn’t constitute a walk-back.

But the internal conversation, led by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, reflects the widespread view among top Republicans that the current chaotic situation — beset with blame-casting, backstabbing and unintended consequences — is untenable.

The important larger context here is that Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, has already made his dissatisfaction known about this executive order — leading to internal conflict with Bannon over it. Kelly was reportedly not briefed on the executive order until Trump was basically in the process of signing it. And DHS privately concluded that the ban did not legally apply to green card holders but was overruled by Bannon, who insisted that it did, because, well, because he said so. The White House subsequently reversed course on this point.

Now it appears that people at DHS — or Republicans who are allied with them — are letting it be known that the agency may put some kind of checks or limits on the policy, via “implementation guidance.” The executive order would temporarily ban refugees and migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, and those challenging the order in court argue that, based on Trump’s own campaign rhetoric about his desired “Muslim ban,” the intent of it is to replicate such a ban and discriminate against Muslims via legally permissible means.

It’s hard to know what any DHS effort to soften this via implementation guidance might look like. But one possibility is that DHS could employ the discretion to make exceptions to the executive order in individual cases.

“If they wanted to, DHS could in fact soften this to a certain degree,” immigration attorney David Leopold says. “They could say that the executive order gives us the ability to decide on a case-by-case basis that it’s in the national interest to let in some refugees or legal immigrants from these countries.”

Of course, it’s also possible that such a “softening” could be cosmetic. “DHS could say that they are applying exceptions, to create the impression that they’re being humanitarian, while in fact enforcing a complete ban, just as Trump wants,” Leopold says.

Whatever ends up happening, the core point here is that some senior members of Trump’s administration — and some congressional Republicans — want to be seen distancing themselves from the substance and intent of this immigration ban, even though it is viewed by Bannon, the keeper of the eternal flame of Trumpism, as central to Trump’s appeal to his voters. Bannon likes to argue that a massive silent majority of ordinary Americans is rooting for Trumpism — he has now declared that the current turmoil shows that a “new political order” is being born before our eyes. According to Bannon, only out-of-touch coastal elites do not get what is happening. Putting aside the contempt this betrays for all the ordinary Americans who are horrified by this first iteration of Trumpism and are resisting it in various ways, the battle over the meaning of the political reaction to it will have important long term implications.

That’s because there are still plenty of other fights ahead over immigration that will determine how far Trumpism gets in the real world. There is the possibility that Trump could extend this executive order or even expand it to include other countries. It is still not entirely clear what Trump has in mind for the hundreds of thousands of people brought here illegally as children. The degree to which Trump will expand deportations among millions of other undocumented immigrants remains to be seen. The revival of a registry for visitors from select countries remains a possibility. It is not hard to imagine that Trump might be tempted to ratchet some or all of these things up to 11 if there is a major terrorist attack.

Thus, the massive blowback greeting the current measure — and the fact that some Trump administration insiders and more reasonable Republicans are coming to see being associated with it as substantively, morally and politically untenable — will hopefully serve as an early warning of sorts. It might make them more reluctant to stand idly by as Bannon and his allies try to convert more of Trumpism’s cruelest and ugliest impulses into reality.

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* WHY ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL REFUSED TO ENFORCE BAN: Monday night, acting attorney general Sally Yates was fired by Trump after she announced she would not defend his refugee ban in court. The Times explains her decision:

Ms. Yates … believed that the department had to consider the intent of the order, which she said appeared designed to single out people based on religion. Mr. Trump had campaigned on a promise to single out Muslims for immigration restrictions. … Rudolph W. Giuliani … said in an interview that Mr. Trump wanted a Muslim ban but needed “the right way to do it legally.” Mr. Trump said in a later interview … that Christian refugees would be given priority for entry visas to the United States.

Indeed. And Trump himself has even discussed his Muslim ban and this sort of limitation on entry from Mideast countries as in effect the same proposal. The intent is obvious.

* FIRING OF YATES SETS UP BIGGER FIGHT OVER SESSIONS: Bloomberg reports that Trump’s decision to fire Yates gives Democrats a new line of questioning to press on Jeff Sessions before he’s confirmed as Attorney General:

Senate Republicans likely can clear Sessions…with a final vote as early as Friday, if they turn quickly to address his confirmation. But Democrats say they want more time to question him, particularly over whether he’d have the independence to stand up to Trump if he disagreed with the president. Democrats say that’s what…Yates did, and it cost her her job.

No doubt Senate Republicans will gladly give Dems more time to question the prospective chief law enforcement officer of the U.S. on a matter as important as whether he’ll be independent of Trump.

* TOP NATIONAL SECURITY OFFICIALS KEPT IN DARK ABOUT BAN: The Associated Press reports:

At least three top national security officials — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Rex Tillerson, who is awaiting confirmation to lead the State Department — have told associates they were not aware of details of the directive until around the time Trump signed it. Leading intelligence officials were also left largely in the dark, according to U.S. officials.

But Steve Bannon knew about it — indeed, he had a heavy hand in writing it — and apparently, that’s all that matters.

* TRUMP’S NONSTOP LIES STIR ALARM OVERSEAS: Mark Landler reports that foreign leaders and diplomats are watching Trump’s endless lying and wondering how that might impact international relations:

From defense treaties to trade pacts, foreign leaders are struggling to gauge whether they can depend on the United States to honor its commitments. They are sizing up a fickle president whose erroneous remarks on small issues cast doubt on what he might say on the big ones — the future of NATO, say, or the Iran nuclear deal — that involve war and peace.

Trump is being unpredictable and disruptive. It’s a brilliant, tremendous strategy, believe me.

* BIGOTRY ‘INFUSES’ THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE: David Brooks ties Trump’s executive order on refugees to his wall on the Mexican border:

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the aroma of bigotry infuses the whole operation, and anybody who aligns too closely will end up sharing in the stench. The administration could have simply tightened up the refugee review process and capped the refugee intake at 50,000, but instead went out of its way to insult Islam. The administration could have simply tightened up immigration procedures, but Trump went out of his way to pick a fight with all of Mexico.

It does sometimes seem as if creating the impression of a U.S. fight with Islam or Mexico is a feature, not a bug, of Trump’s policies.

* AND TRUMP KEEPS DISSEMBLING ABOUT EXEC ORDER: Trump and the White House keep saying that “only 109 people” were impacted by the ban. Glenn Kessler sets the record straight:

The “109” number is old, and rather dubious. For instance, it does not reflect how many people were prevented from even boarding a plane….The real number is about 90,000. According to State Department statistics, that’s how many people received either nonimmigrant or immigrant visas from the seven affected countries in fiscal year 2015.

The pointy-headed elite media fact-checkers just don’t get this. “Alternative facts” cannot be fact-checked by definition.