WASHINGTON — The seven Muslim-majority countries targeted in President Trump’s executive order on immigration were initially identified as “countries of concern” under the Obama administration.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Sunday pointed to the Obama administration’s actions as the basis for their selection of the seven countries. Trump’s order bars citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the U.S. for the next 90 days.
“There were further travel restrictions already in place from those seven countries,” Spicer said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“What the president did was take the first step through this executive order of ensuring that we’re looking at the entire system of who’s coming in, refugees that are coming in, people who are coming in from places that have a history or that our intelligence suggests that we need to have further extreme vetting for.”
Restrictions from Obama years broadened to a ban
In December 2015, President Obama signed into law a measure placing limited restrictions on certain travelers who had visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria on or after March 1, 2011. Two months later, the Obama administration added Libya, Somalia, and Yemen to the list, in what it called an effort to address “the growing threat from foreign terrorist fighters.”
The restrictions specifically limited what is known as visa-waiver travel by those who had visited one of the seven countries within the specified time period. People who previously could have entered the United States without a visa were instead required to apply for one if they had traveled to one of the seven countries.
Under the law, dual citizens of visa-waiver countries and Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria could no longer travel to the U.S. without a visa. Dual citizens of Libya, Somalia, and Yemen could, however, still use the visa-waiver program if they hadn’t traveled to any of the seven countries after March 2011.
Trump’s order is much broader. It bans all citizens from those seven countries from entering the U.S. and leaves green card holders subject to being rescreened after visiting those countries.
The executive order specifically invoked the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A senior Trump administration official also pointed to the 2015 shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California, to justify the President’s orders although neither of the attackers in the shooting would’ve been affected by the new ban.
Conflict of interest questions
In the hours after its release, many questioned why the list omitted other countries with direct links to those terror attacks. The 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon.
Some also questioned whether Trump deliberately left off countries where he has business interests.
The list does not include Muslim-majority countries where the Trump Organization does business, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. In financial disclosure forms during the presidential campaign, he listed two companies with dealings in Egypt and eight with business in Saudi Arabia. And in the UAE, the Trump Organization is partnering with a local billionaire to develop two golf courses in Dubai.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said Sunday Trump’s business ties had no influence over the countries selected for the travel ban.
“Just like I said very clearly, the countries that were chosen in the executive order to protect Americans from terrorists were the countries that have already been identified by Congress and the Obama administration,” Priebus said on “Meet the Press.”
He added, “That does not mean that other countries wouldn’t be added later to a subsequent executive order.”
Ethics lawyers say the correlation illustrates the conflict of interest Trump has created by keeping an ownership stake in his business.
“Somalia is on the list, but Saudi Arabia is not. People from Somalia are going to say that’s arbitrary. And one of the factors, people are going to say, is the president does business with Saudi Arabia but not Somalia,” said Richard Painter, the chief ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration.