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White House Defends Controversial Order On Immigration

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Trump administration is defending its controversial order that temporarily bars refugees from coming to the U.S. as well as citizens of seven largely Muslim countries. Friday's order brought lawsuits over the weekend and protests at airports around the country. Even some of the president's fellow Republicans are criticizing the order, saying it is too broad or poorly executed. We'll hear from one in a moment.

First, NPR's Scott Horsley joins us from the White House. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: There's lots of confusion about this order over the weekend. Lawyers went to court, as we said. The early rulings did not go the president's way. Is the White House offering any kind of apology or introspection about the way this was handled?

HORSLEY: Not at all, Ari. The order was issued late Friday, and that meant there was little time to spread the word to those who were charged with enforcing it. There was confusion over how to deal with green card holders. Some of those early legal challenges concerned what to do with travelers who did make their way to the U.S. But the White House is minimizing all of that.

The president tweeted out this morning, everything's going well. There have been very few problems. The president does have broad authority in this area, and it's not at all clear that future lawsuits against this policy will go the protesters' way. White House Spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters, Trump is simply doing what he said during the campaign he would do, and Spicer insisted Trump is not changing course.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SEAN SPICER: The American people support what the president's doing. Everyone in here needs to get out of Washington once in a while and go talk to people throughout America that are pleased that this president is taking the steps necessary to protect this country.

SHAPIRO: You know, the White House keeps framing this as making Americans safer. Does this order actually make Americans safer?

HORSLEY: Well, the administration says it does. But you know, there are critics like Michael Hayden, the former CIA director, who told NPR this morning, this could very well make the country less safe by playing in the jihadi narrative of a war between the West and Islam.

That said, though, Sean Spicer might be right about Americans' attitudes towards this order. There was a new poll out today that asked people, would you support suspending travel from, quote, "terror-prone regions" even if that meant closing the door to refugees? And by a narrow margin, more people said they would support it than oppose it.

SHAPIRO: Of course the specific countries on that list are up for debate. We're going to talk a little bit more about that in a moment. But also interestingly today, former President Obama spoke out for the first time, putting out a statement. Tell us what it said.

HORSLEY: Yeah, he basically is encouraging the demonstrations against this travel ban that we've seen around the country. He said those demonstrations are, quote, "exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake." Obama also took issue with Trump's plan to give preferential treatment to Christian refugees. The former president says he fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion.

SHAPIRO: President Trump is also getting some pushback from members of his own State Department. What are they saying?

HORSLEY: There is a memo circulating through what is called the dissent channel at the State Department. That's an established way for career diplomats to raise concerns about U.S. policy. And several hundred have endorsed a memo which says the travel ban, quote, "stands in opposition to the core American and constitutional values we as federal employees took an oath to uphold." Sean Spicer, however, was not moved by that diplomatic criticism.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SPICER: I think that they should either get with the program, or they can go.

SHAPIRO: Well, Scott, last thing I want to ask you about - the travel ban was not the only executive action by the president that generated some controversy this weekend. He also reorganized the National Security Council. Tell us about that.

HORSLEY: Yeah, he changed the makeup of what's called the principal's committee. And he appeared to de-emphasize the role of the nation's top military officer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the director of National Intelligence. Now, the White House is downplaying that. Sean Spicer says those folks are still welcome to attend any NSC meeting they want to.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SPICER: However, if the issue is on, you know, pandemic flu or other domestic-type natures that don't involve the military, it would be a waste of time to drag the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over. If he wants to attend, he's part of the committee. He can come anytime.

HORSLEY: A bigger concern for critics is not who was taken off the list but who was put on - Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart executive who is now a senior White House strategist. Bannon is one of the architects of Trump's America-first strategy, and foreign policy critics are nervous to see someone who's basically a political adviser playing such a big role in the NSC.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House, thank you.

HORSLEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.