President Trump tastes maiden defeat
Donald Trump declared, in his acceptance speech, at the Republican National Congress in last July, "I alone can fix it." Throughout the presidential election campaign he boasted "I know how to do it. Nobody knows better than me. Trust me, I will do it." But he never took the trouble of showing the magic wand to fix all the needed fixing. Now, people are watching almost daily how he is messing up not only in external relations but in domestic issues as well.
President Trump, within two weeks of taking the oath, issued an Executive Order prohibiting entry of people from seven Muslim countries in the United States in the next 90 days. The Executive Order also debarred Syrian refugees to enter into the United States in the next 120 days. The administration could not convincingly explain why the people of only seven Muslim countries were targeted and why the refugees from Syria were singled out. Initially, the ban included the people even having "US Green Cards" but later on Green Card holders were exempted.
The Executive Order was promulgated so suddenly that the relevant departments, i.e., the State Department and the Justice Department were taken aback. The airlines were not alerted. Consequently many passengers, despite having valid documentations, were detained at the airports - some were even deported to their countries of origin. The airport authorities in Chicago, New York, Dulles and in Seattle were caught by surprise by huge numbers of passengers stranded and did not know how to handle the situation. Many Senators and Congressmen showed up at the airports and expressed solidarity with the families of the stranded passengers. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) deployed lawyers at the airports to provide legal counselling. It also filed law suits at the District Courts challenging the detention of the passengers at the airports.
Given the urgency of the matter, the Judge of the Brooklyn District Court accepted the petition for hearing on Saturday (February 04) afternoon and in the evening issued an injunction on the Executive Order. The judge also decreed that those who had already arrived at the airports with valid documentations and those were on the way cannot be denied entry into the United States. James Robart, District Judge, Seattle, issued a "broader stay order" on the Executive Order and made it applicable countrywide and with immediate effect.
Trump got infuriated and remarked, "Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and the court system." He instructed the Attorney General to challenge the "stay order" in the Appeal Court. Sally Yates, Acting Attorney General, considered the ban unconstitutional and advised her colleagues against defending an unlawful executive order. She was dismissed and her successor was appointed a few hours later.
A three-member Appeal Court heard the arguments from the Attorney General, representing the Federal Government and Washington State Attorney General, representing Seattle District Court on February 07-08. The government argued that the president has "unreviewable authority to suspend the admission of any class of aliens and that the ban no longer applied to green card holders - citing guidance from the White House counsel issued after the ban took effect - and the challenges on those grounds should be invalidated". On the following day, the Appeal Court issued a lengthy and unanimous judgment upholding the verdict of the District Court, Seattle. In their judgment the judges said:
"The Government has produced no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States. Rather than present evidence to explain the need for the Executive Order, the Government has taken the position that we must not review its decision at all." The judges asserted, "Although courts owe considerable deference to the President's policy determinations with respect to immigration and national security; it is beyond question that the federal judiciary retains the authority to adjudicate constitutional challenges to executive action."
The judges further noted, "In light of government's shifting interpretations of the Executive Order we cannot say that the current interpretation by White House Counsel, even if authoritative and binding, will persist past the immediate stage of these proceedings."
The judges decided against leaving even part of the order in place. The Appeal Court quashed the Executive Order enforcing travel ban on the Muslims.
It remains unclear why did Trump act in haste and issue the travel ban which is so consequential? Trump himself clarified that he wanted to proceed with a "cut-off date" but his security experts advised otherwise. He then blamed the media for not reporting the terrorists' attacks and remonstrated that he was overtaken by the security threats and promulgated the travel ban. These explanations are absurd; the media elaborately reported terrorists' activities including San Bernardino and Orlando incidents. If the President possessed information about impending security threats he should have kept the people abreast.
There was no compelling reason to promulgate the Executive Order when the Congress was in session and the Republican Party commands the majority in both Houses of Congress. The proposal would have been debated on the floor of the Congress and then it could have been passed. But Trump was not apparently confident of the loyalty of his party members; many Senators criticised his style of governance and opposed some of his nominees for the cabinet. Besides, Trump obviously suffers from a sense of "lack of legitimacy" of his presidency. Though he secured 290 electoral votes against 232 by his rival Hillary Clinton, on popular votes, he was lagged behind her by about three million votes. This has been haunting him all along. He claimed that millions of people voted illegally in favour of Hillary though he could not produce a shred of evidence in support of this claim. He promised to set up an enquiry but over the weeks it was put into the back burner.
Two days after oath-taking, Trump visited CIA Headquarters and gave a 15-minute-long speech. His relationship with the CIA has been tumultuous. He devoted only two minutes to CIA and its staff and on the remaining 13 minutes dwelt on how behemoth was the gathering at his inauguration ceremony at the Pennsylvania Avenue. He castigated the media for not accurately reporting the size of the crowd which, according to him, was "unprecedented." Pointing journalists at the meeting, he called them "very, very dishonest people."
A few days later, he called the President of Mexico and discussed building a wall along Mexican border. Trump suggested that the Government of Mexico should pay for it. It was a contentious proposition. The Government of Mexico has all along opposed construction of the wall and obviously cannot be expected to foot the bill. When the Mexican President dissented on financing the construction of the wall, Trump got annoyed and threatened to impose 20 per cent tax on Mexican products sold in the US. Following the heated phone call, the Mexican President cancelled his planned visit to Washington. The phone call with Australian Prime Minister was acrimonious. Trump was politely reminded of the US-Australia agreement about resettlement of 1,250 refugees camped in Australia. Given his obsession with refugees, Trump abruptly terminated the call. A conversation planned for 45 minutes did not last 15 minutes. Trump characterised the call as the worst phone call he ever had.
British Prime Minister Theresa May had an uneventful meeting with Trump at the White House on January 26-27. Their appearance before the media was short. Nonetheless, the British leader conveyed her disapproval on easing of sanction against Russia. The meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister apparently went well except an awkward prolonged handshake. Meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on February 13 was extremely formal. But Trudeau, at the joint press conference, reiterated Canada's policy to welcome Syrian refugees - a repudiation of Trump's hostile immigration policy.
Large-scale protests in major American cities confirm that people are fast losing confidence in Trump. People are suffering from "collective trauma" marked by fear, anxiety and hopelessness; and this trauma has been unleashed by nobody other than their own president. The Republican stalwarts are scared of putting up resistance while others are in reckless pursuit of positions. The Democrats are in disarray. In this political stagnation people can only look toward an independent judiciary. Hopefully, the media will continue to play a pivotal role by debunking the falsehood, bellicosity and intrigues of bigoted reactionaries who now have found refuge in the White House.
The writer is a former official of the United Nations.