Congressional Republicans splintered Saturday over President Donald Trump's executive order temporarily barring immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations, with several GOP lawmakers chastising it as overly broad even as Speaker Paul Ryan and committee leaders defended it as a necessary measure for national security.
Yet most Republicans, especially those on Capitol Hill, have kept silent, declining to publicly comment on a hugely controversial move based on a concept from Trump that many party leaders had harshly criticized when he first raised it during the presidential campaign.
"President Trump and his administration are right to be concerned about national security, but it’s unacceptable when even legal permanent residents are being detained or turned away at airports and ports of entry," Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said in a Medium post Saturday night. "Enhancing long term national security requires that we have a clear-eyed view of radical Islamic terrorism without ascribing radical Islamic terrorist views to all Muslims."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) also laid out her disagreements with Trump's directive, noting that it could block immigration of Iraqi nationals who worked for the U.S. military as interpreters and bodyguards during the Iraq War. They can qualify for a so-called "special immigrant visa" that is set aside for Iraqi and Afghan citizens who aided the U.S., and one of the men detained at John F. Kennedy airport late Friday had obtained that visa after working as an interpreter for the U.S. military for a decade.
"The worldwide refugee ban set forth in the executive order is overly broad and implementing it will be immediately problematic,” Collins said in a statement to the Sun Journal.
But Ryan (R-Wis.), once a harsh critic of any ban on Muslim immigration, came out in defense of the president's order. Senior GOP congressional aides said that Trump's action was not targeted specifically at Muslims and therefore did not mean the White House was imposing a religious test on refugees.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would not comment on Trump's order. McConnell plans to make his position known during a Sunday morning TV interview.
Democrats across the country reacted with fury over Trump's declaration, and they vowed to fight the order legally and politically.
Trump's executive order, issued on Friday night, calls for a temporary halt to the admission of people from seven Muslim-majority countries; a temporary ban on all refugees; and an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees.
There is also a directive that religious minorities from those Muslim-majority countries, which by implication means Christians in many cases, get priority among refugees eventually admitted to the United States.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who clashed with Trump during the campaign, said the order could hurt U.S. standing with Muslims worldwide.
According to Sasse, "while not technically a Muslim ban, the order is too broad. There are two ways to lose our generational battle against jihadism by losing touch with reality. The first is to keep pretending that jihadi terrorism has no connection to Islam or to certain countries. That's been a disaster. And here's the second way to fail: If we send a signal to the Middle East that the U.S. sees all Muslims as jihadis, the terrorists win by telling kids that America is banning Muslims and this is America versus one religion."
Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, one of the few remaining GOP moderates in the House, was upset about a Syrian refugee family turned away by U.S. immigration authorities at Philadelphia's airport.
In a statement, Dent said, "A Syrian Christian family who, according to family members in my district, held valid visas and were not refugees, yet were detained at the Philadelphia International Airport and then forced to leave the country as a result of the Executive Order. This family now faces the uncertain prospect of being sent back to Syria."
Dent called the episode "unacceptable and I urge the administration to halt enforcement of the order until a more thoughtful and deliberate policy can be instated."
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a frequent critic of executive power, objected to Trump's action in a series of statements on Twitter.
"The president's denial of entry to lawful permanent residents of the United States (green card holders) is particularly troubling," Amash said. "We must do much more to properly vet refugees, but a blanket ban represents an extreme approach not consistent with our nation's values."
Ryan was one of the few Republicans to openly praise Trump's order.
"We are a compassionate nation, and I support the refugee resettlement program, but it’s time to reevaluate and strengthen the visa vetting process. This is why we passed bipartisan legislation in the wake of the Paris attacks to pause the intake of refugees," Ryan said in a statement. "President Trump is right to make sure we are doing everything possible to know exactly who is entering our country."
When pressed on whether this is a reversal by Ryan, who previously said he did not support any effort to bar Muslim immigration, an aide to the Wisconsin Republican noted Muslims are not explicitly targeted or singled out in the Trump order.
"This is not a religious test and it is not a ban on people of any religion," AshLee Strong, Ryan's spokeswoman, insisted.
A senior GOP congressional aide noted that Trump's order is focused on fighting terrorism and preventing potential terrorists from getting into the country, something the American public strongly backs.
The aide also said the order did not affect refugees or visa applicants in the "vast majority" of Muslim nations.
"The visa suspension is focused only on those nations where terrorism is a particular concern," the aide said. "And the refugee program suspension, other than for Syria, is applied to all countries. To suggest that is a blanket policy on Muslims or Muslim-majority nations is false."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), a hardliner on the issue of Syrian refugees, also backed Trump's move.
"The primary duty of the federal government is to keep Americans safe. Today, President Trump has begun to fulfill this responsibility by taking a number of critical steps within his authority to strengthen national security and the integrity of our nation’s immigration system," Goodlatte said. "As ISIS terrorists have vowed to use the immigration system to inflict harm, it’s imperative that we know who is coming and going from our country. National security officials have repeatedly warned that we dramatically lack the resources and information to fully vet refugees from countries of concern, like Syria.