The ban was always controversial, and a series of court decisions muted some of its impacts. But Tuesday, after months of sometimes bizarre rewrites and persistent backlash, the Supreme Court ruled that the travel ban is constitutional. Which means it's probably here to stay.
For foreign critics of the Trump administration, it's been an exhausting journey. At the start, there was near-universal dissent against the proposal in foreign capitals. Now there's mostly resignation, along with some deeply uncomfortable questions. Namely: Do foreign leaders have any levers to influence the Trump administration's policies? And what if the problem with the United States goes beyond Trump himself?
Trump first proposed the ban in December 2015, months before he won the Republican Party's presidential nomination. "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on," he announced, reading from a statement at a rally in South Carolina.
The idea of banning an entire religious group from a country — a policy with no parallel in the modern world — prompted cheers from his supporters. But the global response could be summed up in one word: outrage. In Britain, some politicians proposed banning the potential leader of the free world from the U.K. One parliamentarian even called Trump a "wazzock." Egypt's official religious body called Trump's remarks "hate rhetoric." Even leaders with their own anti-Muslim policies pushed back. "Seriously, have you ever heard me say something like that?" Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Front party, asked in a 2015 interview.
But then Trump won the Republican nomination and the presidency itself. And one of his first acts as head of state was an executive order that banned people from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States for 90 days. The measure also placed temporary but severe restrictions on all refugees; Syrian refugees were indefinitely uninvited.
The executive order was watered down from Trump's initial idea — "to be clear," Trump said in a statement at one point, "this is not a Muslim ban." And the international response was more cautious. Some nations did hit back hard, especially those directly affected: A number of Iraqi politicians suggested that they would ban American citizens in response. But European nations took a more measured tone. The French National Front even appeared to change its tune — when asked if Le Pen could adopt Trump's policy, one party mayor said, "Why not?"
The change in tone may have reflected Trump's position and foreign critics' hopes that he could be constrained by the U.S. political system. And for a while, he was.
The ban's implementation was halted by a federal judge. When Trump issued a new version of the travel ban a few weeks later, it, too, was put on hold by federal judges. In September, the administration released yet another version, adding North Korea, Venezuela and, inexplicably, vital counterterrorism partner Chad to the list (the central African nation was quietly removed in April). Once again, it was blocked by legal challenges.
This week, the Supreme Court announced that it would uphold the third iteration of the ban, ruling 5 to 4 in the president's favor. As The Washington Post's Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow noted, the high-profile case "called for the justices to balance their usual deference to the president on matters of national security with a never-before-seen barrage of campaign statements, tweets, retweets and comments from the president tying Muslims to terrorism."
In the United States, Trump's critics are apoplectic. Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor, called it the worst decision since the infamous Korematsu case, which saw the Supreme Court uphold the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (notably, the justices overturned that 1944 decision on Tuesday, too). But foreign leaders have mostly stayed quiet. The silence is not out of respect — like many in the United States, they've been worn down by the chaos. Over the past 18 months, they've been shown time and time again that they cannot persuade Trump to avoid his worst impulses. They've presented credible arguments against Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement or tried to reason against his zero-sum trade logic, to no avail.
Some leaders, like France's Emmanuel Macron or Canada's Justin Trudeau, thought they could develop a macho bonhomie with Trump that could, for example, persuade him to stay in the nuclear agreement with Iran. These leaders have now been clearly disabused of that logic. Meanwhile, seemingly close allies in the Muslim world, like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have also kept quiet — perhaps aware of how limited their leverage is.
What changed this week, however, was that the blow came not from Trump but from the very institutions that are expected to limit his excesses. Looking over the political polarization that has former opponents of Trump's travel ban now celebrating it, foreign leaders must be wondering: How many of our problems lie with Trump, and how many lie with America itself?
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