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Pence Defends Trump’s Criticism of Judge Who Blocked Travel Ban

February 5, 2017

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US Vice president-elect Mike Pence answers questions from reporters as he arrives at Trump Tower on January 3, 2017 in New York. DON EMMERT—AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday defended President Donald Trump’s attack on a federal judge who blocked a travel ban on citizens of seven mainly Muslim nations, as the first major legal battle of the Trump administration intensified.

The new Republican president blasted U.S. District Judge James Robart as a “so-called judge” on Saturday, a day after the jurist in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order on the ban. A U.S. appeals court later on Saturday denied the government’s request for an immediate stay of the ruling.

“The president of the United States has every right to criticize the other two branches of government,” Pence said on NBC’s program Meet the Press.

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It is unusual for a sitting president to attack a member of the judiciary, which the U.S. Constitution designates as a check on the power of the executive branch and Congress.

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Trump seems intent on precipitating a constitutional crisis.

Some Republicans also expressed discomfort with the situation.

“I think it is best not to single out judges for criticism,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on CNN’s State of the Union program. “We all get disappointed from time to time at the outcome in courts on things that we care about. But I think it is best to avoid criticizing judges individually.”

Republican Senator Ben Sasse, a vocal critic of Trump, was less restrained.

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“We don’t have so-called judges … we don’t have so-called presidents, we have people from three different branches of government who take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution,” he said on ABC News program This Week.

The ruling by Robart, appointed by former Republican President George W. Bush, along with the decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to deny the government’s request for an immediate stay dealt a blow to Trump barely two weeks into his presidency.

It could also be the precursor to months of legal challenges to Trump’s push to clamp down on immigration, including through the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border.

The businessman-turned-politician, who during his presidential campaign called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, has vowed to reinstate the travel ban on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen and a 120-day bar on all refugees.

He says the measures are needed to protect the United States from Islamist militants. Critics say they are unjustified and discriminatory.

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The legal limbo will prevail at least until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules on the government’s application for a stay of Robart’s ruling. The court was awaiting further submissions from the states of Washington and Minnesota on Sunday, and from the government on Monday. The final filing was due at 5 p.m. PST on Monday (0100 GMT on Tuesday).

The uncertainty has created what may be a short-lived opportunity for travelers from the seven affected countries to get into the United States.

Sara Yarjani’s visa was marked “revoked” in red Sharpie pen—but the Iranian student visa holder was attempting a return to Los Angeles on Sunday after she was sent back to Vienna, where she had been visiting her parents, last week under the immigration order.

Her sister, Sahara Muranovic, said Yarjani got on a flight back to Los Angeles once she learned that Trump’s order had been blocked. She was slated to arrive on Sunday afternoon.

“This is our only window,” Muranovic said. “Maybe they’ll blow it again by Monday.”

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Reacting to the latest court ruling, Iraqi government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said: “It is a move in the right direction to solve the problems that it caused.”

Trump’s Jan. 27 travel restrictions have drawn protests in the United States, provoked criticism from U.S. allies and created chaos for thousands of people who have, in some cases, spent years seeking asylum.

In his ruling on Friday, Robart questioned the use of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States as a justification for the ban, saying no attacks had been carried out on U.S. soil by individuals from the seven affected countries since then.

For Trump’s order to be constitutional, Robart said, it had to be “based in fact, as opposed to fiction”.

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The 9/11 attacks were carried out by hijackers from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon, whose nationals were not affected by the order.

In a series of tweets on Saturday, Trump attacked “the opinion of this so-called judge” as ridiculous.

“What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?” he asked.

Trump told reporters at his private Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida late on Saturday: “We’ll win. For the safety of the country we’ll win.”

The Justice Department appeal criticized Robart’s legal reasoning, saying it violated the separation of powers and stepped on the president’s authority as commander-in-chief.

The appeal said the state of Washington lacked standing to challenge the order and denied that the order “favors Christians at the expense of Muslims.”

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The U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security said they were complying with Robart’s order and many visitors were expected to start arriving on Sunday, while the government said it expected to begin admitting refugees again on Monday.

A spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, Leonard Doyle, confirmed on Sunday that about 2,000 refugees were ready to travel to the United States. “We expect a small number of refugees to arrive in the U.S. on Monday, Feb. 6th. They are mainly from Jordan and include people fleeing war and persecution in Syria,” he said in an email.

Iraqi Fuad Sharef, his wife and three children spent two years obtaining U.S. visas. They had packed up to move to America last week, but were turned back to Iraq after a failed attempt to board a U.S.-bound flight from Cairo.

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On Sunday, the family checked in for a Turkish Airlines flight to New York from Istanbul.

“Yeah, we are very excited. We are very happy,” Sharef told Reuters TV. “Finally, we have been cleared. We are allowed to enter the United States.”

Rana Shamasha, 32, an Iraqi refugee in Lebanon, was due to travel to the United States with her two sisters and mother on Feb. 1 to join relatives in Detroit until the trip was canceled as a result of the travel ban.

She was waiting to hear from U.N. officials overseeing their case. “If they tell me there is a plane tomorrow morning, I will go. If they tell me there is one in an hour, I will go,” she told Reuters by telephone in Beirut. “I no longer have a house here, work, or anything.”