(Reuters)

Weeks before he is sworn in as president, Donald Trump and his advisers are issuing conflicting statements about the status of a signature tenet of his candidacy: restrictions on Muslims entering the United States.

Trump this week once again declined an opportunity to clarify his position on the Muslim ban, which he first proposed a year ago, suggesting that his position has been consistent. This left his aides a day later insisting once again that the year-old proposal for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration had evolved into something more nuanced.

The public back-and-forth reflects the degree to which Trump’s aides have struggled to reshape his initial pronouncement into something more palatable to the public than an all-out ban on a religion. And it highlights Trump’s propensity to double down on his original statements even as his advisers seek to shift the focus to other issues.

“As he’s walked through and learned about this stuff, he has evolved,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and a vice chairman of Trump’s transition committee. The policy has become “more targeted, more narrowly defined and more implementable,” he added.

In the past 12 months, Trump has veered widely on the issue. He has suggested that wealthy Muslims might be exempted from a ban and that country-specific enhanced vetting was an expansion, rather than a refinement, of his original proposal. At one point, Trump suggested the ban might affect only Muslims from “terror states.”

Outside the White House on Dec. 21, Imam Ali Siddiqui, center, speaks to protesters about President-elect Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim policy proposals. Protesters heard messages of tolerance. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It has never been clear what Trump would classify as “terror states,” but he has alluded at times to Syria and Saudi Arabia.

According to Trump, his policy on the ban and views on registering Muslims already in the United States have been known “all along.”

He added that the terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin this week vindicates him.

“I’ve been proven to be right. One-hundred-percent correct,” Trump told reporters Wednesday outside his Mar-a-Lago estate, his national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, peering over his shoulder. “What’s happening is disgraceful.”

Less than 24 hours later, Trump’s former campaign manager and newly-named White House counselor Kellyanne Conway denied that the president-elect still supports a ban on Muslims and described Trump’s plans as focusing on country-specific vetting rather than solely on religious affiliation.

“What he says is that it’s very clear that we need better vetting policies,” Conway said on CNN on Thursday morning. “You’re going back to over a year ago and what he said about the ban versus what he said later about it when he made it much more specific and talked about countries where we know they have a higher propensity of training and exporting and in some cases harboring terrorists.”

Asked whether religion would be a criteria for screening entrants, Conway added: “That in and of itself, no.”

(The Washington Post)

Trump’s national security aides, led by Flynn, are currently working out the details of his plan, attempting to take a groundbreaking approach to finding terrorists before they strike, Gingrich said. He declined to say what this approach would look like, but he suggested that Islam would be used as criteria for the “extreme vetting.”

“Were any of them Baha’i? Were any of them Buddhist? Were any of them Christian?” Gingrich asked, referring to the individuals who carried out the attacks in Berlin and Turkey this week. “All the people involved they yell ‘Allahu akbar!’ when they kill people.”

German authorities have presented no evidence that the attacker who plowed his truck into a crowd at a Christmas market shouted ‘Allahu akbar!’ but said he appeared to have been inspired by the Islamic State.

Trump has also expressed an openness to establishing a registry of Muslims entering the United States. And he has taken counsel from Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, who helped develop the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which was used to register and monitor visitors from “high-risk” countries from 2002 to 2011.

Gingrich did not say whether Trump envisions a revival of NSEERS. But some of his other advisers have suggested as much, and when Trump refers to banning people from “terror states,” national security and immigration experts guess that he is referring to NSEERS.

That program, which the Department of Homeland Security ultimately determined to “redundant” with existing monitoring procedures and relatively useless in providing added security benefits, mandated that men over the age of 16 from one of 25 countries on a list register with the U.S. government if they were living in the United States, or arrived to visit. Twenty-four of those countries were Muslim majority countries.

Registration, which involved fingerprinting, interrogations and sometimes parole-like check-ins, was required, regardless of whether the individuals had broken the law.

Men who overstayed their visas or failed to comply with annual registration requirements or more frequent check-ins were deported.

Nearly 180,000 people registered with the program when it was in place; more than 83,500 of them already resided in the United States when the program was enacted.

On Thursday, the Obama administration moved to make it more difficult for Trump to utilize NSEERS — issuing final regulations that seek to dismantle the program.

Civil rights advocates say the NSEERS already amounted to a registry for Muslims through discriminatory targeting. Obama shelved the program in 2011, but the regulations that allow it to function were not dismantled.

Virtually all of the proposals floated by Trump and his aides would invite legal challenges or strain international partnerships needed in the terror fight, experts say.

Enacting immigration restrictions, even from countries “compromised” by terrorism rather than simply based on religious affiliation, would be “almost inherently ridiculous,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a foreign policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who also served as an adviser to Republican Sen. John McCain on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“You’re talking about countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, with the possible exception of Syria — virtually every country in the region now has a government cooperating with us on counterterrorism,” he said. “Does anybody who has actually suggested this even bothered to look at who our major partners are?”

Some experts expect the Trump administration to quietly take administrative steps rather than rely on Congress moving legislation to achieve its goals.

“I think there are a lot of agency level things that could happen, because it’s much more hidden,” said one national security expert, who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “If you want to put pressure on Muslim communities, you could work through the FBI,” which could be accomplished with little public oversight.

Trump cast suspicion on Muslims and Muslim places of worship throughout his campaign, referring variously to “radical mosques” and “people coming out of mosques with hatred and with death in their eyes.” He has suggested that mosques should be monitored.

“You’re going to have to watch and study the mosques,” he said last year, commending the New York Police Department for its surveillance of Muslims in the years following Sept. 11 through a strategy that focused on where people in traditional Islamic attire congregated.

Counterterrorism experts have since said there is no evidence to support a correlation between style of dress or mosque attendance and a likelihood to commit terrorism.

“The executive branch has claimed extremely broad authorities to surveil or investigate people. There is a watch listing system in place that is discriminatory and unfair,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the ACLU, adding that the ACLU will challenge the legality of any efforts by the administration “to double down or introduce new programs that discriminate on the basis of religion and race.”

Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.