Lawmakers this week pressed Rex Tillerson, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly — President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees for secretary of state, attorney general and homeland security secretary, respectively — to address some of the policy proposals that Trump has directed at Muslims.
Trump has yet to elaborate on the specifics of campaign trail proposals for a ban on Muslim immigration, a registry of Muslims, a Muslim database or “extreme vetting” of visa applicants’ religious beliefs, or special surveillance of mosques. His aides have also offered conflicting explanations of the proposals, all of which have alarmed civil rights advocates.
Tillerson, Sessions and Kelly’s answers weren’t always entirely clear. Here’s what they said, and who asked:
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-Vt.) asked Tillerson whether he thinks “it’s helpful to suggest that as Americans, we should be afraid of Muslims” — a jab at Trump’s national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who has said as much — and asked whether Tillerson would “support restricting travel or immigration to the United States by Muslims.” She also asked whether he’d “support creating a national registry for American Muslims.”
Tillerson said that Americans should not be afraid of Muslims and that through his travel to Muslim countries, he has gained an “appreciation and recognition of this great faith.”
He said he does “not support a blanket-type rejection of any particular group of people,” but added that there are “serious challenges to be able to vet people coming into the country.”
On the question of a Muslim registry, he said: “I would need to have a lot more information around how such an approach would even be constructed. And if it — if it were a tool for vetting then it probably extends to other people, as well, other groups that are threats to the U.S.”
Later, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) asked Tillerson again. “The president-elect has said that he would consider Muslim Americans being required to register in a government database. I just want to ask you directly: You don’t support a Muslim registry, do you, for people coming into this country, based on religion?” He brought up the National Security Entry-Exit Registry System (NSEERS), a registry system implemented under former president George W. Bush that was used primarily for Muslim noncitizens.
Last month, President Obama removed the legal provisions allowing the program to operate.
Tillerson said he was not familiar with the program.
Booker also asked Tillerson whether he thought Flynn’s likening Islam to “a cancer” is “constructive to our foreign policy.”
“My experience, Senator, has been the best relationships in which you can make progress on tough issues is built on mutual respect of one another, which then leads to hopefully mutual trust,” Tillerson said.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who on Tuesday led the questioning of Sessions on the ideas of a Muslim ban and extreme vetting, started by telling him about the religious minorities and others she has heard from who are “terrified that they will have no place in President-elect Trump’s vision of America,” and that she is deeply concerned that their fears are well founded.”
Hirono noted that in a previous meeting, Sessions told her that he “would not support” a ban on Muslims coming to the United States “based on the fact that they were Muslim. … But you also indicated that you would support basically what would be considered enhanced vetting of people with extreme views.”
Sessions responded that he would support a “higher intensity of vetting” for people coming from “areas where we have an unusually high risk of terrorists coming in, people who could be clearly violent criminals.”
Hirono pressed him on whether religious views “would be a factor in determining whether somebody has extreme views.”
“Their religious views in … extremism,” Sessions responded. “If … their interpretation of their religious views encompasses dangerous doctrines and terroristic attacks, I think they should certainly deserve more careful scrutiny than someone whose religious views are less problematic.”
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Kelly was asked a similar question by Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.).
Peters, whose congressional district includes the largest Arab American community in the country, told Kelly that “there is a great deal of fear in the community, a great deal of unease about what the future means for them under the new administration and certainly, the Department of Homeland Security is a place where they have particular anxiety.”
He asked Kelly if he thought a Muslim database and “generalized surveillance” of mosques “would raise serious constitutional issues.” He asked him to commit to ensuring that religion isn’t used as a basis for counterterrorism or law enforcement policy, particularly as it relates to targeting Muslims. And he asked Kelly whether he would support a registry for noncitizen Muslims, Arabs or South Asians.
Kelly said his understanding of the law was that a Muslim database and generalized surveillance would raise constitutional issues. He said religion should never be “the only factor” in counterterrorism or law enforcement policy. And he said a registry program for noncitizens “would have to be legal.”
Pressed further, Kelly said: “I don’t agree with registering people based on ethnic or religion or anything like that.”
Kelly also appeared to distance himself from Trump and his advisers’ emphasis on “radical Islamic terrorists” as the primary or only perpetrators of extremist violence.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) asked Kelly to talk about how he would address of the problem of homegrown extremism.
Kelly said: “I think it really does start with families and with churches, synagogues, mosques, you know the homegrown, if you will, terrorists, not just ISIS inspired. I mean, there are some pretty grim other groups of other nationalities, if you will, you know, white supremacists, that kind of thing. But I really do believe it starts with people, parents understanding what is going on in the bedroom when their son or daughter is in there on the Internet all the time.”