Homeland Security Chief Pushes Back on Handling of Travel Ban

  • Secretary John Kelly says department saw draft executive order
  • Public communication ‘hasn’t been the best,’ border chief says

DHS Chief Kelly: This Is Not a Ban on Muslims

Homeland Security chief John Kelly rebutted criticism that his department didn’t know President Donald Trump’s order suspending entry by people from seven nations was coming until it was signed and said his team quickly ensured foreign residents of the U.S. were exempt from the policy.

Kelly, in his first public appearance since Trump’s executive order prompted protests at airports across the country, said Tuesday that he knew the mandate was coming since Trump was a presidential candidate and that he viewed two drafts of the proposal in the days before it was issued Jan. 27. He said the department weighed in on the draft but that he personally “didn’t get involved in correcting grammar.”

About 721 travelers out of 1 million people arriving in the U.S. were affected by Trump’s order, which targeted people from seven Muslim majority nations, in the 72 hours after it was signed, according to Customs and Border Protection data. But Kelly conceded that an exemption for residency visa holders emerged only after the order was signed, and Kevin McAleenan, the acting head of Customs and Border Protection, said communication to the public and other agencies “hasn’t been the best in the roll out of this process.”

“I keep being asked about chaos at ports of entry,” Kelly said. “Our officers who were at the counters, the only chaos they saw was taking place at other parts of the airport,” he added, in a reference to the protests that spontaneously erupted from New York to San Francisco.

Democrats Protests

McAleenan went on to say that airlines in some cases “over-interpreted our guidance” about who could and could not board their planes bound for the U.S. Kelly said visa holders from the seven nations, which include Iran, Iraq, Syria and Somalia, would be barred from boarding planes before flying to the U.S.

Anger over the executive order emboldened Democrats to rebel on at least two Trump Cabinet nominations Tuesday. They forced a delay of scheduled committee votes on the nominations of Steven Mnuchin to run the Treasury and Representative Tom Price to head Health and Human Services by staging a boycott. The order has also prompted tougher questioning of Senator Jeff Sessions’s suitability to be attorney general, one day after Trump fired the acting attorney general for refusing to defend the executive order. They managed to stall a vote in the Judiciary Committee until Wednesday.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Kelly’s briefing confirmed that the executive order went out with “proper preparation and coordination with DHS.”

Kelly emphasized that the ban on travel from people from the the seven nations was temporary, giving officials time to ensure they have sufficient information on travelers’ backgrounds. But he added that given the political and economic situation in some of those countries, they “might not be taken off the list anytime soon.”

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