Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis stood directly behind their boss Friday, one man on each side, as President Donald Trump announced an order that will ban half the world’s Shiite Muslims from entering the country for months.
“I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States,” Trump said from his podium at the Pentagon. “We don’t want ‘em here.”
Pence nodded along to the words. It was just over a year earlier when he had called Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States “offensive and unconstitutional.” That was before Trump picked him as his running mate and won the election.
Trump sat down after his speech, signed the executive order and handed it to Mattis – a retired general who six months earlier had said the mere suggestion of a ban on Muslims caused “great damage” to world order.
Now, Mattis was defense secretary. He took the order and grinned while Pence started clapping.
Like other Republicans, the two men’s condemnations of Trump’s words had evaporated as he drew closer to power – and as his original call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” morphed into a nearly 3,000-word order that does not mention Islam but temporarily bar visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries.
One of those countries, Syria, had attracted Pence’s scrutiny even before a young Trump campaign waded into the issue in late 2015.
He was one of more than two dozen governors who called for a suspension of Syrian refugees that year – as a civil war there fueled fears that terrorists would slip into the United States amid the wave of evacuees.
But when Trump upped the ante in December – calling for a border ban on all Muslims “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on” – Pence joined the immediate Republican backlash.
Trump’s words may have been “offensive” to Pence, but they were popular with others. After winning contest after contest in the spring primaries and turning his sights on the general election, Trump blasted Democrat Hillary Clinton for border policies that would “let the Muslims flow in.”
A few months later, a taciturn retired general who had overseen all U.S. military operations in the Middle East felt compelled to speak out against Trump.
The call for a Muslim ban was causing American allies to think “we have lost faith in reason,” Mattis told Politico last July.
“They think we’ve completely lost it,” he said. “It’s sending shock waves through this international system.”
He and Pence were joined in displeasure by Republicans across the spectrum. By former Vice President Richard B. Cheney, who said banning a religion “goes against everything we stand for,” and who echoes language by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and many others.
Even Trump’s campaign eventually distanced itself from his rhetoric. “Donald Trump’s Contract with the American Voter,” released last October, mentions no Muslim ban, but rather “extreme vetting” and a halt on immigration “from terror-prone regions.”
And by late 2016, with prospects for White House jobs in the wind, some of Trump’s former critics went mum on the issue.
A CNN host confronted Pence about his silence in October, long after he’d left the Indiana governor’s office to campaign as Trump’s running mate.
“What he has said about women, about Mexicans, about Muslims matters,” the host said. “Now you are tacitly accepting those positions because you won’t speak out.”
“It’s not Donald Trump’s position now,” Pence said of the ban, according to CNN. He fell back on the campaign’s latter-day language about terrorist-linked countries rather than Muslims.
Trump’s secretary of state designate backed the president up at his confirmation hearing this month. “He does not support a blanket-type rejection of any particular group of people,” Rex Tillerson promised Congress.
Sure enough, Friday’s executive order makes no mention of Islam.
It bans any visitors from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia from entering the United States for any reason for three months, with broader restrictions on the refugee program.
None of those seven countries make up more than a few percentage points of the global Muslim population, according to a 2009 Pew study, although together they contain the majority of world’s Shiite Muslim minority.
And just before signing the order, Trump suggested to the Christian Broadcasting Network that religion was not far from his mind.
Once he restarts the refugee program, Trump told the outlet, Christians fleeing war and terror in the Middle East would get priority over others.
“They were chopping off the heads of everybody, but more so the Christians,” he said of Syria – failing to mention that far more Muslims have been killed or displaced in that civil war.
Neither Pence nor Mattis have commented in public about the executive order after applauding its signing on Friday.
But another compatriot from their days as Trump critics has offered his take.
Ryan, who once called any Muslim ban un-American, said in a statement Friday that “President Trump is right.”
“We are a compassionate nation, and I support the refugee resettlement program, but it’s time to reevaluate and strengthen the visa-vetting process,” Ryan said.
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