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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Tweets Twist Facts

In the wake of another terrorist attack in Britain, President Donald Trump fired off several tweets about the need for his court-blocked travel ban, contradicting statements from members of his own administration and distorting the facts in the process.

  • Trump tweeted that the Justice Department “should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down, politically correct version they submitted to” the Supreme Court. It was ultimately Trump who decided to abandon the original order.
  • The president said the administration has already implemented “extreme vetting” procedures as promised during the campaign. The secretary of homeland security said his department has stepped up vetting procedures, but that the courts have blocked a study of the procedures, which has left him “just guessing” as to the most effective measures.
  • Trump said “people, the lawyers and the courts” can call his order “whatever they want,” but that he would call it “what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!” But his own spokesman and secretary of homeland security have said it’s not a travel ban.
  • Trump distorted the words of the London mayor to claim he had said there’s “no reason to be alarmed” because of the June terrorist attack in the city. The mayor said there’s “no reason to be alarmed” about an increased police presence in coming days.

Trump’s tweets came in the days after the June 3 terrorist attack in London, in which assailants drove a van into pedestrians on London Bridge and then attacked people with knives. Seven people were killed.

The ‘Watered Down’ Ban

Trump has issued two orders that seek to limit visitors and refugees from several predominantly Muslim countries to the U.S., and both have, so far, been blocked by the courts.

Trump’s first attempt came on Jan. 27 with an executive order that sought to impose a 90-day travel ban, with some exceptions, on the citizens of seven predominately Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The order also suspended the refugee program for 120 days, and indefinitely for Syrian refugees. However, the courts blocked that ban.

The president regrouped and met with his legal team, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and others. On March 6, Trump formally took another crack at it, with a revised order that sought to impose a 90-day travel ban on the citizens of six countries (Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen) who do not have valid visas, and to suspend the refugee program for 120 days. But that, too, has been blocked in federal court. Trump has vowed to appeal that ruling all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. But now, it seems, he regrets that legal appeals were not exhausted on the first order.

Trump’s wording suggests it was the Justice Department that made the decision to create a revised order. But it was ultimately Trump himself.

On the day the revised order was issued, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that “rather than leave America’s security in limbo while the litigation dragged on … the president acted to protect the national security by issuing a new executive order that addresses the court’s concerns, some of which merely involve clarifying the intent of the original executive order.”

Spicer added: “So it was discussed with the president Saturday, and he made a decision that this was how he wanted to proceed going forward, based on the advice and counsel of his team.”

The revised order, signed by Trump, specifically revoked and replaced the first order.

“Executive Order Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” March 6: In light of the Ninth Circuit’s observation that the political branches are better suited to determine the appropriate scope of any suspensions than are the courts, and in order to avoid spending additional time pursuing litigation, I am revoking Executive Order 13769 and replacing it with this order, which expressly excludes from the suspensions categories of aliens that have prompted judicial concerns and which clarifies or refines the approach to certain other issues or categories of affected aliens.

At that point, the first order was moot, several legal experts told us, preventing the Justice Department from moving forward on an appeal of it.

The courts do not entertain theoretical exercises, William Stock, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told us, so the Justice Department could not have pursued a legal ruling on the first order once the second was signed.

“Trump seems confused about who acted in superseding the first order with the second,” Peter Spiro, an international law professor at Temple University, told us via email.

Stock and Spiro told us Department of Justice lawyers helped craft the revised order in a way they believed would better stand up to a legal challenge.

Stock said the president appears to be second-guessing the advice of officials in the Justice Department to revise the order, and wishes that he had tested the limit of executive power with regard to immigration policy in the Supreme Court.

In any case, Spiro said, the tweets “are only making things appreciably worse in terms of likelihood of success [in the courts] on the merits. He’s just digging deeper into a hole that was already pretty deep.”

“Ultimately, it was the President’s decision whether to defend the first order,” Micah Schwartzman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Virginia, told us via email. “He could have told his Attorney General (or acting Attorney General at the time) to do that.

“In other words, President Trump could have defended the first order, but on the advice of his lawyers, he decided not to do that,” Schwartzman said. “Instead, he issued a second order, which he’s criticizing in his tweets as ‘watered down’ and ‘politically correct.’ So he seems to regret his earlier decision, or at least the decision he delegated to his lawyers.”

As for whether the second order is watered down, Trump is free to characterize it as he pleases. But we would note that Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to the president, told Fox News on Feb. 21 — in the days leading up to the second order — that the revised order included some “technical differences” to appease the courts, but would have little practical effect.

Miller, Feb. 21: Well, one of the big differences that you’re going to see in the executive order is that it’s going to be responsive to the judicial ruling, which didn’t exist previously. And so these are mostly minor technical differences. Fundamentally, you’re still going to have the same basic policy outcome for the country, but you’re going to be responsive to a lot of very technical issues that were brought up by the court and those will be addressed. But in terms of protecting the country, those basic policies are still going to be in effect.

Miller’s comments were cited by the federal judge in Hawaii who blocked the revised ban.

On Extreme Vetting

Another tweet by the president claimed that homeland security has already instituted the “extreme vetting” he promised so often during the campaign. But homeland security officials say the court rulings have blocked the ability to perform a review of vetting procedures to determine which are the most effective.

What exactly “extreme vetting” means has yet to be revealed. But Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly has said that while the administration is implementing “extreme vetting,” it’s “not even studying” the effectiveness of the procedures because of the courts.

Kelly made his comments on May 28 in an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News:

Kelly: We are actually implementing it. The irony here is, had it stood, we would have had the 90 days to study. We’re not even studying what would be procedures, because we are enjoined and can’t do that. In the meantime —

Wallace: You can’t study extreme vetting?

Kelly: No. We’re — the irony again is we can’t study it, but I’m just guessing, and implementing.

But we are going to find implement ways to determine who this — an individual is, and remember, most of these countries have no passports. They have no police. They have no intelligence. Many of the countries in question don’t even have a U.S. embassy there to help us vet. The U.N. will tell you it’s almost impossible to vet these people from these countries because there are no passports and all the rest of it.

We have to figure out a way to determine who they are and why they come into the United States. Otherwise, we’re guessing. And this president and John Kelly doesn’t want to guess when it comes to national security and protection of the U.S. population.

In written testimony provided to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on April 5, Kelly stated that while the order was scheduled to take effect on March 16, “the U.S. District Court of the District of Hawaii issued a preliminary injunction, indefinitely prohibiting the Federal Government from enforcing or implementing all of sections 2 and 6 of the Executive Order.”

Those sections include provisions about a review of vetting procedures, among other things.

The Department of Justice filed a motion to get the court to clarify the scope of the order, saying it is “unclear whether the court intended for its Temporary Restraining Order to extend to all of those provisions” in sections 2 and 6. But the court denied it on March 19. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson wrote that “there is nothing unclear about the scope of the Court’s order.”

In a March 21 court filing, the Hawaii attorney general’s office said: “The Government could engage in appropriate consultations and an appropriate review of the immigration system as a whole independent of this Order; it simply cannot do so as part and parcel of effectuating the President’s promise to implement a Muslim ban.”

In early May, DHS spokesman David Lapan told reporters that some vetting procedures have been added or changed, though he declined to say how. “That, we’re not making public,” Lapan said.

On May 4, the State Department publicly requested that visa applicants be “more rigorously” evaluated, with requests for additional information including travel history for the previous 15 years and social media handles used during the previous five years.

It’s unclear to what extent the court ruling has limited the administration’s ability to implement or improve its vetting procedures, and homeland security officials have not spelled out how they have enhanced procedures consistent with “extreme vetting.” But Kelly’s comments suggest the department believes it has been blocked from reviewing procedures in a way that might maximize their effectiveness.

‘Travel Ban’

The controversies surrounding Trump’s order start with what to call it. Although Trump numerous times has called it a ban, administration officials have taken issue with that moniker.

Trump clarified where he stood on the issue with a tweet on June 5.

Trump, of course, is free to call it whatever he wants. But we’d note that members of his own staff have contested that title.

“Well, first of all, it’s not a travel ban,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at a press briefing on Jan. 31. “What it is, is to make sure that the people who are coming in are vetted properly from seven countries that were identified by the Obama administration. A ban would mean people can’t get in. We’ve clearly seen hundreds of thousands of people come into our country from other countries.”

Spicer went on to say, “Because when we use words like ‘travel ban,’ that misrepresents what it is.”

And, he added: “It’s not a travel ban. It’s a vetting system to keep America safe — that’s it, plain and simple. And all of the facts and a reading of it clearly show that that’s what it is.”

When a reporter pointed out that Trump himself had referred to the executive order as a “ban” in a Jan. 30 tweet, it led to this bizarre exchange, in which Spicer blamed the president’s use of the term on the media:

White House press briefing, Jan. 31, Question: Sean, thanks. You’re saying it’s not a ban. This was President Trump’s tweet yesterday: “If the ban were announced with a one-week notice, the ‘bad’ would rush into our country during that week.” So he says it’s a ban.

Spicer: He’s using the words that the media is using. But at the end of the day, it can’t —

Q: Those are his words. … Wait a minute.

Spicer: Hold on, hold on, hold on. It can’t be —

Q: That’s his words, his tweet.

Spicer: … It can’t be a ban if you’re letting a million people in. If 325,000 people from another country can’t come in, that is by nature not a ban — it is extreme vetting.

Q: I understand your point. But the president himself called it a ban.

Spicer: I understand that.

Q: Is he confused or are you confused?

Spicer: No, I’m not confused. I think that the words that are being used to describe it are derived from what the media is calling this. He has been very clear that it is extreme vetting.

Never mind that, as CNN’s Jake Tapper reported on Jan. 31, Spicer himself used the word “ban” to describe the president’s order on several occasions, including the previous night at George Washington University.

More recently, Secretary of Homeland Security Kelly insisted it is not a travel ban.

“It’s not a travel ban, remember,” Kelly said on “Fox News Sunday” on May 28. “It’s a travel pause.”

Again, Trump can call the order whatever he wants. But he’s clearly not on the same page with his own staff on this.

Sparring with London’s Mayor

Finally, Trump misconstrued the words of London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrongly claiming that Khan said there was “no reason to be alarmed” because of the terrorist attack. Khan told the city’s residents that there was “no reason to be alarmed” because of an enhanced police presence in coming days.

Here are Khan’s remarks in an interview with the BBC on June 4:

Khan, June 4, BBC interview: Well, there aren’t words to describe the grief and anger that our city will be feeling today. I’m appalled and furious that these cowardly terrorists would deliberately target innocent Londoners and bystanders enjoying their Saturday night. There can be no justification for the acts of these terrorists and I’m quite clear that we will never let them win, nor will we allow them to cower our city or Londoners. …

Londoners will see an increased police presence today and over the course of the next few days. No reason to be alarmed. One of the things the police and all of us need to do is make sure we’re as safe as you possibly can be. I’m reassured that we are one of the safest global cities in the world if not the safest global city in the world. But we always evolve and review ways to make sure that we remain as safe as you possibly can.

Trump tweeted the same day: “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!'”

A spokesperson for the London mayor responded: “He has more important things to do than respond to Donald Trump’s ill-informed tweet that deliberately takes out of context his remarks urging Londoners not to be alarmed when they saw more police — including armed officers — on the streets.”

Despite widespread criticism over his tweet, Trump doubled-down on his distortion. He claimed in yet another tweet on June 5 that Khan gave a “pathetic excuse” for his statement and that the “MSM is working hard to sell it!,” referring to the mainstream media. But as far as fact-checking goes, there was no hard work involved here. Khan’s full statement makes it clear that Trump had taken his comments out of context.