HS secretary Kelly goes before Congress, takes blame for travel ban

In his first appearance before Congress, Secretary Kelly addressed criticism of the Trump administration's travel ban from both sides of the aisle and discussed plans to build a wall on the Mexican border.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday before the House Homeland Security Committee hearing on border security. This was Kelly's first public appearance before Congress since being sworn in, and lawmakers challenged him over the Trump administration's contentious rollout of a travel and refugee ban.

In his first appearance before Congress since being sworn in, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly offered both a defense of the Trump travel ban and an apology for the way it was implemented.

Testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday, Secretary Kelly said that the ban – which temporarily prevents nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries from traveling to the US and bars refugees from settling – was a “travel pause” designed to prevent “thousands” of ISIS fighters from reaching the United States. He also took the blame for the implementation of the bill, which created uncertainty and led to lawful residents being denied entry.

Kelly’s testimony seemed crafted to address criticism from both sides of the aisle: Republicans who objected to the ways the ban had affected existing residents, and Democrats who criticized its intent and cast doubts on Kelly’s involvement in crafting the ban. These criticisms have contributed to various rollbacks in the order, and contributed to a Seattle federal judge’s decision to place the ban on temporary hold on Friday.

Committee chairman Mike McCaul (R) of Texas said he would have preferred to see the White House consult with Congress before implementing the travel ban, which he said produced “confusion” on Capitol Hill. He also mentioned the problems the ban created “for people with lawful green cards and visas, who in some cases were already in the air when the order was signed,” Bloomberg reported.

Following the lines laid out by the Trump administration in its earlier defense of the policy, Kelly said that the order was implemented without advance notice for security reasons.

"The desire was to get it out ... quick so potentially the people [who] were coming to harm us could not take advantage," he said, according to CNN.

At the same time, however, he apologized for the failure to consult with Congress.

"In retrospect, I should have – this is all on me by the way – I should have delayed it just a bit so I could have talked to members of Congress," Kelly told members of the committee, CNN reported.

In light of reports that Kelly and senior department staff had limited information about the ban and its content, Democrats suggested that they should turn their questioning toward the White House.

“It is somewhat unfair that Secretary Kelly is being called upon to defend an executive order that, by most accounts, he was required to implement with almost no notice,” Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the committee, said, according to Bloomberg. “The White House officials who directed the rollout of the Executive Order should be here to answer for this debacle.”

But in taking the blame for the confusion surrounding the implementation of the order, Kelly may have answered these reports. He testified that he and his staff had been given the opportunity to make changes to the order in the week before the ban was signed.

In the Executive Order, the September 11th attacks were repeatedly cited as a justification for the ban, but none of the attackers came from one of the seven countries on the list. One thing those countries do have in common is having majority-Muslim populations, leading to concerns that the ban was a means to skirt the First Amendment and implement a tacit ban on Muslims.

During his testimony, Kelly offered a different interpretation. He emphasized that the ban was not designed to discriminate against Muslims, but was directed against states with insufficient security procedures. 

“Of the 51 Muslim countries on Earth, seven are on the pause list,” Kelly said, Bloomberg reported. “Not because they’re Muslims, but because their countries are failed states.”

Kelly also discussed another executive order, which requires a wall to be built on the border with Mexico. It was a flagship campaign promise of Mr. Trump’s, and Kelly indicated that he intends to carry it out, saying he is currently working with local law enforcement and citizens to determine each area’s needs.

“I am committed to executing President Trump’s plan to secure our southern border with effective physical barriers, advanced technology, and strategic deployment of law enforcement personnel,” Kelly said, noting that he expected the construction to be “well underway” within two years.

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