A familiar talking point has permeated the many Republican defenses of Donald Trump's controversial travel entry ban: It's not a "Muslim ban."
"This is not a ban on Muslim refugees," Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) assured. “Everybody needs to take a deep breath; there is no litmus test based on religion," Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) said. “It's simply wrong to call the president’s executive order concerning immigration and refugees ‘a religious test’ of any kind," Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) argued.
Trump himself issued a statement Sunday saying the same: "To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting."
For the record, non-ideological media outlets aren't flat-out calling it a Muslim ban — just noting that the opposition is making that argument. The executive order makes no explicit mention of a
religion Islam, after all. (Correction: The order does mention religion, but not Islam specifically.)
But it's unavoidable to note that the ban covers citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries — the only seven countries it targets. And even some Republicans are suggesting that it amounts to a religious test, or at least worrying it has the appearance of one.
For for that perception and story line, Trump has himself to thank.
It was Trump, after all, who once actually did propose a Muslim ban. It's still on his campaign website, more than a year later: "DONALD J. TRUMP STATEMENT ON PREVENTING MUSLIM IMMIGRATION."
Then Trump confidant Rudy Giuliani took to Fox News on Saturday night and said Trump basically was shooting for a Muslim ban with his executive order but recognized it needed to be altered to pass muster.
Fox News host Jeannine Pirro asked Giuliani, “How did the president decide the seven countries?”
“I'll tell you the whole history of it," Giuliani said. "So when [Trump] first announced it, he said, 'Muslim ban.' He called me up. He said, 'Put a commission together. Show me the right way to do it legally.'"
Giuliani continued: “And what we did was, we focused on, instead of religion, danger — the areas of the world that create danger for us. Which is a factual basis, not a religious basis. Perfectly legal, perfectly sensible. And that's what the ban is based on. It's not based on religion. It's based on places where there are substantial evidence that people are sending terrorists into our country.”
It's hard not to read Giuliani's comments as confirmation that a Muslim ban was the original intent, if not the final result. He's basically arguing it's not a Muslim ban because that wasn't practical. And given the particulars of the final result — even if not explicitly a religious test — it's not hard to draw a line between A and B.
Trump's long-running commentary has also made clear that he believes Muslims should perhaps be treated differently in some way (though the actual proposals have shifted). A few examples:
- Asked about increasing surveillance of Muslims, Trump said: “We’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”
- Asked whether he would support a “full Muslim database,” he said: “Basically the suggestion was made and [is] certainly something we should start thinking about."
- Asked if he would rule out a database on all Muslims, he said no, but then shifted to talking about a database just of refugees. “No, not at all,” he said. “I want a database for the refugees that — if they come into the country. We have no idea who these people are."
And even as recently as this weekend, Trump again suggested a preference for Christian refugees over Muslim ones. Here's an exchange between him and the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody, which aired Saturday night:
BRODY: Persecuted Christians, we’ve talked about this, the refugees overseas. The refugee program, or the refugee changes you’re looking to make. As it relates to persecuted Christians, do you see them as kind of a priority here?
BRODY: You do?
TRUMP: They’ve been horribly treated. Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, at least very tough, to get into the United States? If you were a Muslim, you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible, and the reason that was so unfair, everybody was persecuted in all fairness, but they were chopping off the heads of everybody but more so the Christians. And I thought it was very, very unfair. So we are going to help them.
The common thread running through these and many of Trump's comments about applying extra scrutiny to Muslims is that he's often asked about something specific, and tends to offer a generally positive response. The most charitable interpretation is that he's just trying to be agreeable.
But the totality of Trump's comments on this make it impossible to divorce this issue from religion. He's gone to that well too many times, suggesting that it might be okay to single Muslims out — either for immigration, surveillance or a registry of some kind.
Which is why you now see even some Republicans saying this looks way too much like a religious test.
"I am deeply troubled by the appearance of a religious ban," Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said Sunday night. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) added, “If we send a signal to the Middle East that the U.S. sees all Muslims as jihadis, the terrorist recruiters win by telling kids that America is banning Muslims and that this is America versus one religion.”
Trump and his team will chalk that sort of criticism up to Republicans who don't much like him spouting off. The White House would probably be better served by reviewing rhetoric from the president and some of his top surrogates, up to and including this past weekend.