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Senator who lost her legs in Iraq challenges Mattis to explain why he stood by as Trump signed travel ban

President Trump, with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks at the Pentagon Jan. 27 before signing the executive order temporarily banning travel from seven countries. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)
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A U.S. senator who served in the Army and lost her legs in Iraq challenged Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Tuesday to explain why he stood next to President Trump last week at the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, as Trump signed a controversial temporary travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries, saying it contradicts Mattis’s comments before he joined the Trump administration.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said in a letter that the signing ceremony in the Pentagon was a “slap in the face” to Muslim members of the U.S. military. She took special exception to Trump’s holding the event in the Hall of Heroes, a room recognizing the valor and sacrifice of service members who have received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for combat valor.

“It’s nauseating to me,” she said in a brief interview. “I was absolutely appalled, first of all, that it happened at all but, in particular, that the Medal of Honor was used as a backdrop.”

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Duckworth, one of the few members of Congress to have been wounded while serving in the U.S. military, urged Mattis, a retired Marine general, to use his “considerable position of power and many years of military experience” to impress upon Trump “the folly” of his new policy and urge him to repeal it. The order suspended the admission of all refugees to the United States for 120 days and banned for 90 days the entry of citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, prompting criticism that the Trump administration was almost entirely targeting Muslims.

The Trump administration has defended the order as a necessary measure to protect the United States against terrorism, and argued that it is not a ban on Muslims. It includes countries the Obama administration had identified as potential spots from which terrorism could originate but leaves out other countries with connections to previous attacks on the United States, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Former president Barack Obama on Monday rejected any suggestion that Trump’s order was similar to the actions of his administration.

Who is affected by Trump’s travel ban

Mattis and other senior U.S. officials outside the White House were caught by surprise by the order. Until a few hours before the event, senior defense officials, including Mattis and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were preparing for Trump to use the Hall of Heroes to sign one executive order aimed at improving military readiness and another calling for a 30-day review of U.S. policy against the Islamic States, according to U.S. officials. Instead, Trump signed the military readiness order and the travel ban, and handed the travel ban order to Mattis on camera.

Before signing the orders, Trump said in the Hall of Heroes that the room was “sacred,” and added that the “soul of our nation lives between these walls.”

A Pentagon spokesperson, Laura Seal, said Tuesday that the Pentagon would respond to Duckworth’s letter. On Monday, a senior Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, declined repeatedly to address whether Mattis was aware of what was in the executive order before it was signed.

Duckworth said in an interview that she considers Mattis “a man of integrity with a spine of steel,” but she wants answers to how and why he came to find himself next to Trump as the travel ban was signed. It’s a problem, she said, to have the Pentagon chief so closely associated with the measure, considering how many Muslim-majority countries in which the U.S. military operates.

“The visual was very clear,” Duckworth said. “President Trump signed this measure into law in the Hall of Heroes — and General Mattis was standing next to him smiling.”

Before the election, Duckworth noted, Mattis said during an interview with Politico that Trump’s talk of banning Muslims was “causing us great damage right now.”

In her letter, Duckworth requested that Defense Department detail how Trump’s order affects the war against the Islamic State, and provide an assessment of its impact on U.S. military and civilian personnel and partnerships in the region. She also requested an estimate for how many local interpreters who wanted to come to the United States will be affected by Trump’s order and an estimate for how many interpreters have partnered with the United States since 2001.

Davis said Monday that the Pentagon has begun compiling a list of Iraqi citizens who have worked with the United States since the U.S. invasion in 2003 for special consideration under Trump’s executive order. The effort did not begin until after the temporary ban was signed.

The Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday that 872 refugees will be allowed to enter the United States this week despite the new order. They are now considered “already in transit” and would have faced “undue hardship” if they were denied entry into the United States, U.S. officials said.

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