USA First Look

Obama breaks silence, speaks out on Trump travel ban

In a rare move for a former president who left office so recently, Barack Obama praised those protesting President Trump's immigration ban.

People participate in a protest against President Donald Trump's travel ban at Columbia University in New York City on Monday.
Stephanie Keith/Reuters
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Former President Barack Obama says he is “heartened” by the outpouring of support for immigrants and refugees that manifested in nationwide protests against President Trump’s executive immigration order over the weekend.

In his final news conference earlier this month, Mr. Obama said he would voice his opinion on Mr. Trump’s actions only during “certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake,” noting that he wanted to grant Trump the same room to govern that former President George W. Bush left to him in 2009. While the two have been fierce critics of one another in the past, Obama and Trump became more civil publicly in weeks following the election, as Obama said he wanted to ensure a smooth, peaceful transition between the two leaders.

But less than two weeks into Trump’s presidency, the former president's silence came to an end, as he called Trump's immigration order an affront to American values.

"The president fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion," Obama's spokesman Kevin Lewis said in a statement Monday. He also said that the former president felt "heartened by the level of engagement taking place in communities around the country."

Divisions between Democrats and the Trump administration further increased over the weekend after the president signed an executive order Friday barring immigrants from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen from entering the country. He also placed a four-month ban on admitting new refugees to the United States.

The order drew thousands to protest at airports around the nation Saturday evening, where Homeland Security officials had detained visa and green-card holders or sent them on flights back to other countries.

While Obama did not weigh in on the executive order directly, he praised the protesters who gathered peacefully to express their First Amendment rights.

"Citizens exercising their constitutional right to assemble, organize and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake," Mr. Lewis said.

The comments are largely unprecedented in modern politics, but so was Trump’s first week in office, which was marked by the signing of several controversial executive orders.

“I don’t think it’s very common at all for an ex-president to be commenting on the performance of his successor,” presidential historian Robert Dallek told The Washington Post. “This current incumbent is so out of sync with what the normal behavior of a president is that it calls for ex-presidents to respond.”

The former president also took a stance on comparisons between the orders and his own foreign policy. Trump says he chose the seven countries after the Obama administration identified them as hotbeds for terrorism recruiting and crafted a travel ban that mirrors a pause in Iraqi refugee processing taken under Obama.

But Lewis denied the similarities, noting that Obama's designation related strictly to eligibility to enter the United States without a visa and was much more narrow in scope.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.