WASHINGTON - Facing intense criticism and dramatic news coverage of chaos and protests at airports worldwide, several congressional Republicans on Saturday questioned President Trump's order to halt admission to the United States by refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were not among them.
Ryan was among the first lawmakers on Friday to back Trump's order, and his office reiterated his support on Saturday.
"This is not a religious test and it is not a ban on people of any religion," said spokeswoman AshLee Strong.
Ryan and other Republicans defending Trump's actions faced criticism from Democrats, human rights activists and even some in the own party. Ryan's defense and McConnell's silence, some critics said, amounted to a moral failing that made them complicit in a humanitarian crisis.
"To my colleagues: don't ever again lecture me on American moral leadership if you chose to be silent today," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) posted on Twitter along with the famous image of a toddler boy who had died in 2015 while his family fled Syria and whose body had washed up on Turkey's shore.
The order blocks citizens from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya from entering the country for at least 90 days. It also bans refugees from anywhere in the world for 120 days — and from Syria indefinitely. Trump said the goal is to screen out "radical Islamic terrorists" and to give priority for admission to Christians.
Republicans defending the executive order pointed to an exception for people already in transit and argued that some elements, including the religious minority preference, would not immediately be implemented. But as cable news footage brought scenes Saturday of chaos at airports around the country, where business travelers, students and even legal U.S. residents were being barred entry, other Republicans began weighing in.
"This is ridiculous," said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.). "I guess I understand what his intention is, but unfortunately the order appears to have been rushed through without full consideration. You know, there are many, many nuances of immigration policy that can be life or death for many innocent, vulnerable people around the world."
Dent, who represents a large Syrian community in the Allentown area, said he was contacted Saturday by a constituent whose family members were turned away early in the morning at Philadelphia International Airport. Six family members who had secured visas and even bought a house in Pennsylvania arrived on a Qatar Airways flight but were turned back within hours, he said.
Dent called on the Trump administration to immediately halt action on the order.
"This family was sent home despite having all their paperwork in order," Dent said. "So this 90-day ban could imperil the lives of this family and potentially others, and it's unacceptable, and I urge the administration to halt enforcement of this order until a more thoughtful and deliberate policy can be reinstated."
Some conservatives worried that denying entry to permanent residents and green-card holders could violate the Constitution. Many worried privately that the order will face significant challenges in court. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) was among the few GOP members to air his concerns publicly. Amash posted on Twitter that the order "overreaches" and "undermines" the Constitution.
"It's not lawful to ban immigrants on basis of nationality," he tweeted. "If the president wants to change immigration law, he must work with Congress."
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) credited Trump with properly focusing on protecting the country's borders and said it is necessary to connect "jihadi terrorism" with Islam and particular countries. However, he also noted that the order is "too broad."
"If we send a signal to the Middle East that the U.S. sees all Muslims as jihadis, the terrorist recruiters win by telling kids that America is banning Muslims and that this is America versus one religion," Sasse said. "Our generational fight against jihadism requires wisdom."
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said he has "technical" questions about how the order will be implemented but supports its purpose.
The statement from Ryan's office came after several requests seeking comment on how the order differs from the Muslim ban that Ryan rejected during the campaign, whether such a ban is in line with American values and if Ryan is concerned that the order is a first step toward a religious litmus test.
Ryan has been a consistent advocate for increased vetting standards and has frequently said he opposes a complete ban on Muslims entering the country.
"Freedom of religion is a fundamental constitutional principle. It's a founding principle of this country," Ryan told reporters following a closed-door morning meeting at the Republican National Committee in December 2015. "This is not conservatism. What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for. And more importantly, it's not what this country stands for."
The majority of Republicans in Congress were silent on the order Saturday — including McConnell. Calls and emails to more than a dozen top GOP lawmakers were not returned.
Conservative advocacy groups, meanwhile, generally supported Trump's actions.
In an interview Saturday with The Washington Post, Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman Ralph Reed defended Trump's executive order, calling it an "entirely prudent move" and rejecting the notion that it amounts to a ban on Muslims or infringes on religious liberties.
"It makes perfect sense not to try to build the airplane in the air," said Reed, who advocated hitting "the pause button" on current practices on immigration and refugee policies, over concerns about terrorism.
Congressional aides who did respond generally insisted that Trump was merely adopting a policy that passed the House last year with a veto-proof majority. The seven countries named in the order are currently included in the list of as "countries of concern" by the Department of Homeland Security. People who have traveled to or lived in those countries were already subject to additional scrutiny when applying for visa waivers.
One senior GOP aide said in an email that the executive order was "narrow, a faint shadow of the policy Trump ran on." And several congressional aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the executive order itself does not single out a preference for Christians, and the temporary travel ban is focused on areas where terrorism is a particular concern.
Confusion over the directive played out at airports across the country as immigration officials attempted to decide how to handle refugees and travelers from those seven nations who were already in transit or on the ground when the executive order was issued.
Several news outlets reported instances of travelers being detained in airports, including Hameed Khalid Darweesh, a 53-year-old Iraqi man who spent several years acting as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Iraq. Darweesh was released from detention in New York's John F. Kennedy airport after two New York Democrats, Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Nydia Velázquez, intervened on his behalf.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce (R-Calif.) said Saturday that he backs the order but hopes for some resolution for those in transit as the order was announced.
"Pausing the intake of refugees from terror hot spots is the right call to keep America safe," Royce said. "I hope cases of individuals with visas traveling as this executive action went into effect — including some who served alongside U.S. troops — will be resolved quickly."
The House voted last year on legislation to suspend the admission of refugees from Syria and Iraq until the White House could certify that no person entering the United States would pose a security threat. Democrats blocked a vote on the legislation in the Senate, and it ultimately failed to reach President Barack Obama's desk.
Aides also said it is not uncommon for an administration to prioritize refugee requests on the basis of religious persecution. However, since the beginning of the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, many more Muslims than Christians have been killed or displaced because of the violence.
Ryan said Friday that while he supports the refugee resettlement program, he thinks it is time to "reevaluate and strengthen the visa vetting process."
"President Trump is right to make sure we are doing everything possible to know exactly who is entering our country," the speaker said Friday.
Other Republicans offered similar support for the order on national security grounds.
"President Trump signed an order to help prevent jihadists from infiltrating the United States," House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said in a statement. "With the stroke of a pen, he is doing more to shut down terrorist pathways into this country than the last Administration did in eight years."
Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer and House GOP policy director who waged an independent presidential bid in 2016, was one of a small number of Republicans to publicly oppose the ban. McMullin tweeted a photo of the Statue of Liberty on Saturday morning, and was promptly mocked by the white nationalist Richard Spencer.
"That's who they're in league with — white supremacists and white nationalists," McMullin said in an interview. "I'm not expecting much opposition from the vast majority of Republicans in Congress. There is anti-Muslim bigotry at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and it fundamentally un-American and tangibly damaging to our national security and strength."
Most Republicans, McMullin predicted, would decline to criticize the executive orders. "Those who are silent on this will be defined by that silence," he said.