President Trump’s temporary ban on refugees and other foreigners has significantly deepened fissures in his already fragile relationship with congressional Republicans, as GOP leaders on Capitol Hill complained angrily Monday that they were not consulted before the order was issued.
At least a dozen key GOP lawmakers and aides said Trump’s order took them by surprise, even as the White House insisted that it collaborated with Congress. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s political team sought to reassure donors and other supporters that the temporary ban on travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries does not amount to a “religious test.” And a steady stream of Republican lawmakers released carefully tailored written statements expressing concerns about the order.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Monday that he was not briefed before the order was signed.
“I know that they said they talked with some staffers on the Hill — not in our office,” he said.
The disarray over Trump’s fulfillment of a core campaign promise underscored the increasingly strained relationship between the new White House and the Republican congressional majority. It comes after a rocky first week-and-a-half punctuated by confusion over health care and tax reform, as well as frustration with the president obsessing over crowd size and his loss of the popular vote in November.
Asked if he was consulted in the drafting of the order, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said simply: “I wasn’t.”
Pressed on when he first learned about the order, Corker answered that it was Friday, after it was signed. “I guess one of you guys probably told me about it — thank you for that,” Corker told reporters.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said he could not confirm whether his staff was consulted — but he personally did not weigh in on the executive order as it was being drafted. Grassley’s committee is responsible for overseeing the majority of immigration-related legislation in the Senate.
“I’m sure if they said they consulted us, they did,” Grassley said. “But not me personally.”
A member of Grassley’s committee staff worked alongside other congressional staff to assist the Trump transition team on legislative issues, including early drafting of the executive order, one Senate GOP aide said. However, that staff member did not participate in writing the final order. The White House did not share details of the order with the committee before its release on Friday, the aide said.
The statements from top-ranking Republicans in the House and Senate were at odds with comments earlier in the day from White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
“There were staff from appropriate committees and leadership offices that were involved,” Spicer told reporters at a briefing. He refused to specify which committees were involved in the decision-making.
Politico reported Monday night that senior House Judiciary Committee staffers helped Trump’s team draft the executive order without informing party leadership. A committee aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said in a statement following the report: “Like other congressional committees, some staff of the House Judiciary Committee were permitted to offer their policy expertise to the Trump transition team about immigration law. However, the Trump Administration is responsible for the final policy decisions contained in the executive order and its subsequent roll out and implementation.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told reporters that his staff “was told the State Department, as of today, was ordered not to talk to Congress” about the order. Asked about Rubio’s remark, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement: “The Department remains in contact with Members of Congress who have reached out regarding the Executive Orders, and will continue to provide information and assistance as we are able.”
Senior House leaders, including Ryan (R-Wis.), did not see the text of the order until after it was signed Friday, according to a GOP aide. Antonia Ferrier, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said “it was public” that executive orders “were coming” but declined to offer further clarity on the level of interaction with the White House.
Spokespeople for Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said the senators were not consulted at all about the order.
Several GOP aides who requested anonymity to speak openly about the sensitive discussions said they were frustrated and surprised by the order and were forced to scramble to respond as chaos spread at airports across the country. Many said they felt the administration was moving too swiftly and without respect for critical protocol for vetting executive actions that have been in place for decades.
“This is emblematic of a new, power-hungry White House staff flexing its muscles without consulting the public servants responsible for implementing their fiats. If this type of behavior continues, then this administration is going to lose all of its friends very quickly,” said one Senate GOP aide.
As Republicans sparred over the formulation of the ban, they also tried to head off intense criticism that the order unfairly targets Muslims and does little to prevent terrorist attacks in the United States.
In a morning email updating backers on various fronts, the head of Ryan’s political organization said Trump’s executive order was “undoubtedly” the “topic leading the weekend.”
“It is important to lay out the facts on this order so we can evaluate it from a place of reason,” wrote Kevin Seifert. Two recipients shared the email with The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity.
Seifert went on to argue that the order “is not a religious test”or a “ban on people of any religion.” He wrote that “from the perspective of Congress, this is an extension of the bill the House passed with a bipartisan veto-proof majority following the Paris terrorist attacks.”
Even as Ryan was defending Trump’s move, other Republicans on Capitol Hill were voicing growing anxiety about it. After many GOP elected officials stayed silent in the 24 hours after the order was issued, a flood of written statements started pouring in Sunday as lawmakers returned to Washington from their states and districts, and it continued Monday. Many statements included heavy doses of skepticism.
“While I support thorough vetting, I do not support restricting the rights of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said in a statement. “Furthermore, far-reaching national security policy should always be devised in consultation with Congress and relevant government agencies.”
At the same time, there was some clear support for the measure in the party ranks, highlighting the how divisive it has been in the GOP.
“If you didn’t see these executive orders coming, you weren’t looking very closely,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.). “I don’t know why my colleagues would be so negative toward it.”
Duncan, a member of the House Committees on Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs, said that everyone wanted to make sure that Americans with legal status would be able to travel freely but that that issue has since been resolved. He also dismissed criticism that the Trump administration did not execute the order smoothly.
“Not all of the Cabinet-level positions have been filled or confirmed by the Senate,” Duncan said in an interview. “You have a lot of flux within the agencies that were implementing it.”
The uproar over Trump’s ban comes at a critical moment when congressional Republicans are looking to resolve other matters that many see as much more pressing. Among their most challenging tasks: formulating a consensus plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and shepherding a Supreme Court nominee to confirmation in the face of expected heavy Democratic resistance.
Congressional Democrats on Monday continued fighting the ban, both through proposed legislation that would reverse it and a planned protest in front of the Supreme Court.
“This executive order was mean-spirited and un-American, it made us less secure, it put our troops in the field at increased risk, and it was implemented in a way that caused chaos and confusion across the country,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor.
For many Republicans, this was not an episode they relished.
“We have a lot of things we need to do, and I’m focused on the long term and not these little battles that spring up along the way, so I’m going to keep my powder dry so we can accomplish our overall agenda rather than to comment on each and every dust-up like this,” Cornyn said.
Mike DeBonis and Carol Morello contributed to this report.