Ryan defends Trump order, calls confusion ‘regrettable’

Ryan defends Trump order, calls confusion ‘regrettable’
© Greg Nash

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWho should be the Democratic vice presidential candidate? The Pelosi administration It's not populism that's killing America's democracy MORE (R-Wis.) and GOP leaders on Tuesday defended President Trump’s executive order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority nations, even as they griped about the lack of coordination with the White House.

In a closed-door meeting with rank-and-file Republicans, Ryan said Trump’s order should not be a surprise to anybody given that the president and congressional Republicans campaigned on national security and shoring up the border, according to sources in the room.

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And Ryan noted that the travel ban closely resembled the Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, legislation the House passed following the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks that aimed to boost screenings of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

“We need to pause, and we need to make sure that the vetting standards are up to snuff so we can guarantee the safety and security of our country. That is what this [order] does,” Ryan told reporters after meeting with his colleagues. “I support the refugee resettlement program. We’re a generous country; it’s important. But we can be generous and watch our national security at the same time.”

Yet the Speaker also alluded to a grievance that Hill Republicans have been airing both privately and publicly: that the White House rollout of the order could have gone much more smoothly if Congress had been kept in the loop.

Ryan’s entire GOP leadership team was kept in the dark until Friday’s surprise announcement. So were committee chairmen with jurisdiction over immigration issues, though some staffers on both the House and Senate Judiciary committees had helped the Trump transition team draft the order before Inauguration Day.

Because federal agencies and congressional leaders were caught flat-footed by the order, hundreds of U.S. permanent residents with green cards were stranded at airports around the world as officials tried to interpret the order. Later, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly made clear that travelers holding green cards would not be banned under the order. 

“I think it’s regrettable that there was some confusion on the rollout with this,” Ryan said. Then, moments later, he said it again: “Regrettably, the rollout was confusing.”

In the private meeting Tuesday, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and other GOP lawmakers quizzed Ryan about whether the White House understood the need for better communication and coordination, sources said. The Speaker, who is close with both Vice President Pence and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, assured his colleagues things would get better.

“If you look at this rollout, there are a lot of lessons learned about how you get information out front, because there is a lot of misinformation being presented that’s not accurate about the order,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), the No. 3 Republican in leadership, told The Hill after Tuesday’s meeting.

Leaving the same meeting, Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) said some lawmakers expressed frustration about the timing of the travel ban, coming just one week after Trump took the oath of office and as Republicans were tackling other policy issues such as ObamaCare.

“This president has so many distractions,” Ross told reporters. “He’s acting on what he said he would act on, so I can’t say it was a bad thing at all.”

Trump’s executive order also was discussed at a gathering of conservatives on Capitol Hill. Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) said he agreed with the policy’s substance but felt it had been implemented poorly, particularly for legal permanent residents and Iraqi translators who had assisted U.S. troops.

“Overall, I think the policy was good,” Labrador said. But, he suggested, “They need to find an expedited way to deal with those Iraqi translators.”

Another conservative, Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), said a disorganized rollout had made it harder to convince the public the executive order was a good policy. The resulting detentions of people such as legal permanent residents, green-card holders and university students returning from abroad didn’t help the public relations aspect, he said.

“Sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it,” Sanford said. “I think it came across as not whimsical, but maybe not as thoroughly vetted as one would like to see.”

White House spokesman Sean Spicer argued Tuesday that if Trump had “telegraphed” his move in advance, terrorists could have “gotten on planes” and quickly traveled to the U.S.

That would have “undermined the exact nature of what this sought to prevent,” he said. “Or we could have done it in a way that inconvenienced some folks for a little while.”

The media, Spicer said, has been “part of the confusion. You have helped cause this.” 

Cristina Marcos, Jordan Fabian and Mike Lillis contributed.