As stories broke Friday night and Saturday morning of Muslim travelers with valid visas — including “an Iranian scientist headed to a lab in Boston, an Iraqi who had worked as an interpreter for the United States Army, and a Syrian refugee family headed to a new life in Ohio,” according to the New York Times — being stopped mid-journey, many millions of Americans found themselves flabbergasted by the details.
National security is one thing, but Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an Iraqi man held in detention at Kennedy Airport in New York (but then later released after protesters gathered), was deemed safe enough to work for the United States government for a decade in his home country.
In other circles, however, the word went out that it would be a mistake for anyone to find anything surprising about this.
It's not surprising Trump did what he said he would. It is surprising that the GOP -- which eviscerated him for it -- is playing along.— Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) January 28, 2017
There is nothing that Trump did this week that he didn't say he would during the campaign, except the "3 mill illegal votes" probe.— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) January 28, 2017
This is, however, a category error. The emotion I feel when reading about a married Syrian refugee couple resettled in the Seattle suburbs now permanently separated from their oldest daughter by Trump’s order is shock, not surprise. It’s not surprising to see a man who ran on a platform of cruelty and ignorance govern in a cruel and ignorant manner. But it is shocking to have lived one’s life in one kind of country and then wake up to the discover that it has become a cruel and ignorant one.
Take Trump seriously, but he’s not serious
The injunctions against surprise are particularly egregious because Trump’s own camp has frequently argued that it’s illegitimate to criticize Trump merely on the basis of his statements.
“You can’t give him the benefit of the doubt on this and he’s telling you what was in his heart?” Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway protested to CNN’s Chris Cuomo as recently as January 9. “You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”
Peter Thiel famously complained that “the media is always taking him literally” even while we refuse to take him seriously.
It is, in fact, genuinely hard to take Trump literally at all times, since he lies so much. But taking him seriously also seems problematic. Throughout his first week, Trump has enjoyed the showmanship of dramatically signing executive orders that are briefly described by his communications team, with the actual text not made available to the media for hours. The orders are crafted by a tight-knit circle, and not widely circulated among the professional staff at the various agencies. Trump has very few confirmed Cabinet secretaries in place to consult with anyway. And to the extent that they are in place, they are deployed seemingly at random. The immigration orders came at a photo op with Defense Secretary James Mattis, rather than at an event where Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly would be able to elaborate.
House GOP source says exec order is supposed to have exemption for ppl in transit— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) January 28, 2017
Seems clear rollout allowed much confusion among agencies
Consequently, an order intended to be cruel seems like it’s being implemented in a manner that is actually crueler than intended simply because the president of the United States and his senior staff are careless. Trump didn’t even take the time to have the State Department change the refugee arrivals sections of its website, which currently states that the US “is proud of its history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. The U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership.”
It’s okay to stay shocked
While Trump didn’t take the time to properly inform agency personnel how the new rule was supposed to work, to brief the press, to consult with relevant groups, or to have a Senate-confirmed secretary of state in place, he did manage to make sure that his visa ban doesn’t include any of the Middle Eastern countries in which he has business interests.
It’s not surprising per se to see Trump apparently taking his personal financial interests into consideration when making public policy. Nor is it particularly surprising to see that in doing so, Trump is clearly signaling that he knows perfectly well the national security rationale for his actions is bogus. I’m not surprised he did this before he had the chance to consult with American allies in Europe or with military officers serving on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
He signaled during the campaign that he’s sloppy and ignorant just as clearly as he signaled a desire to clamp down on refugees.
Hope, however, springs eternal. Some combination of Mattis and John McCain seems to have convinced Trump to (temporarily) forswear his intention to bring back routinized torture. Life, blessedly, is full of surprises. But most of the time, Trump will probably live down to the low expectations people who value policy expertise and cosmopolitan humanism have of him. It’s not surprising. But it should never stop being shocking.