How Trump turned a reasonably popular policy into a mess

By Aaron Blake analysis

The implementation of the immigration order has upset President Donald Trump's Republican allies. Photo / AP
The implementation of the immigration order has upset President Donald Trump's Republican allies. Photo / AP

When President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Saturday temporarily barring residents of seven countries from entry to the United States, he was doing something that shouldn't have been hugely controversial.

A poll this month, in fact, showed that about half of Americans liked the idea - at least in its broad strokes. The Quinnipiac poll showed that 48 per cent supported "suspending immigration from 'terror prone' regions, even if it means turning away refugees from those regions". Fewer - 42 per cent - opposed it.

And yet here we are, with plenty of Republicans revolting over the travel ban and the Trump Administration having to play all kinds of defence.

The situation is a near-perfect example of Trump's penchant for turning political molehills into mountains and flat land into molehills.

Through a combination of Trump's controversial rhetoric, a lack of thorough preparation and a frenzied implementation, he's turned a policy that Republicans support by a margin of 72 to 17 per cent into something dozens of Republican members of Congress cannot support.

I know we all like to search for Trump's secret political genius in stuff like this, but that's called an unforced error.

Trump's team will undoubtedly ascribe this resistance to the media's coverage of the travel ban, which they say has been unfairly cast as a ban on all Muslims.

That idea, of course, originated with Trump himself back in December 2015, and his rhetoric in the intervening months makes his banning of travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries very difficult to completely divorce from that early proposal.

And the more that debate wears on, the worse it is for Trump. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in mid-January showed that, by a 2-to-1 margin, Americans opposed "banning most Muslims who are not US citizens from entering the US".

In other words, insofar as this is viewed as a Muslim ban, it's unpopular. Insofar as it's viewed as focusing on terror-prone countries, it's on firmer ground. Which is why its defenders are so adamant on this point.

But here's the key: While the Democratic opposition is focused on the religious implications of the executive order, that's not really what Republicans are worried about. Most GOP critics aren't citing the appearance of a religious test; they're talking about implementation and the lack of a heads-up.

"You have an extreme vetting proposal that didn't get the vetting it should have had," Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, said.

Senator Jerry Moran - a perhaps unlikely opponent in ruby-red Kansas - added in a stern statement that "far-reaching national security policy should always be devised in consultation with Congress and relevant government agencies".

Trump's White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said today that the Trump team couldn't keep agencies and Congress in the loop because of the national security implications - which is an interesting defence.

And this is really where the Trump executive order went off the rails. This is where it alienated Republicans.

When green-card holders and those who helped the US fight terrorism abroad were denied entry, it became a PR problem. And right now only three Republicans senators are on the record as clearly supporting the travel ban. When Trump is losing people like Moran, he's in trouble.

Political analysts are always in search of some strategy behind what a politician is doing, and they continue to theorise that Trump's approach is a deliberately scorched-earth one; so do Trump critics who insist on seeing Machiavellian genius behind virtually every move he makes.

Perhaps, say some, it's an effort to make himself more popular by purposefully botching something and hoping the media overreacts. Or maybe it's just causing a tonne of controversy early on in order to lower the bar for the rest of his presidency.

Or maybe it's simply that the construction and implementation of the executive order was just poorly handled.

- Washington Post

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