Analysis: Trump learning that in White House, words matter

  • By JULIE PACE
  • Thursday, March 16, 2017 9:10pm
  • News

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump is learning a harsh lesson: In the White House, words matter.

The new president’s rhetoric, along with commentary from his advisers and associates, was at the heart of two federal judges’ orders this week blocking his controversial refugee and immigration ban for a second time. And on Capitol Hill, his tweets alleging that his predecessor wiretapped his New York skyscraper have brought Democrats and Republicans together in rare agreement: They’ve seen no evidence to back up Trump’s provocative claims.

The legal and legislative pushback has left the White House frustrated and angry. Trump slammed the court orders on his travel ban as “unprecedented judicial overreach.” Spokesman Sean Spicer declared the president was standing by his wiretapping claims, despite having few allies and still no evidence.

Trump is unaccustomed to being held accountable for his words.

As a real estate mogul and reality TV star, he thrived on over-the-top claims and attention-getting hype. His approach, honed through decades working with New York tabloids, deeply frustrated his political rivals during the presidential campaign and sent fact-checkers into overdrive. His campaign advisers responded by encouraging voters and the media to take him seriously, but not literally.

But that’s not an option for the president of the United States. His words can move financial markets, reassure or unnerve allies, quiet or antagonize opponents, set the direction for administration policy and — as Trump saw this week — carry significant legal weight.

Judges in Hawaii and Maryland drew from the president’s remarks — and even campaign press releases — in decisions blocking his executive order that would have temporarily halted entry to the U.S. from six Muslim-majority countries. The order was a revised version of the more sweeping directive that was signed by Trump in January and also halted by the courts.

While the White House has insisted the order does not amount to a Muslim ban, the judges pointed to Trump’s campaign call for temporarily banning all Muslims from the U.S.

“The history of public statements continues to provide a convincing case that the purpose of the Second Executive Order remains the realization of the long-envisioned Muslim ban,” U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang, who is based in Maryland, said in Thursday’s ruling.

Trump’s advisers, too, are being held accountable for their descriptions of the policy.

In Honolulu, U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson’s order referenced a television interview in which former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani recalled the president telling him he wanted to figure out the right way to legally set up a “Muslim ban.” Giuliani was a staunch Trump supporter during the campaign but does not have a job in the administration.

Stephen Miller, Trump’s White House policy adviser and the architect of the immigration and refugee policy, was cited for saying that the revised order was “still going to have the same basic policy outcome” as the first directive.

Trump doesn’t appear to be taking Judge Watson’s order to heart. During a campaign rally shortly after the ruling, he described his second order as a “watered-down version of the first.”

Norm Eisen, who served as Barack Obama’s ethics chief and has been a sharp critic of the new president, called Trump’s words a “legal disaster,” both for the current executive order and any new versions the White House may have to issue.

Meanwhile, the court rulings come as the White House wrestles with Trump’s stunning wiretapping allegations against Obama. He’s offered no evidence to support his comments and has since said he was taking his cues from news reporters about intelligence agencies having intercepts of his associates’ communications with Russia.

The White House tried to quickly shift the burden of proof to House and Senate intelligence committees investigating Russia’s interference in the election. But lawmakers simply ramped up the pressure on the administration, demanding evidence of supposed wiretapping from the Justice Department.

Top lawmakers on both committees made very clear this week that they haven’t seen anything to support the president’s assertions.

“Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016,” Senate intelligence committee chair Richard Burr, R-N.C., and vice chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said in a joint statement Thursday.

Trump’s advisers insist the president’s word does carry weight and point to efforts early in his administration to make good on signature campaign promises, including building a wall along the southern border that Mexico will pay for.

Trump’s budget, released Thursday, would bill U.S. taxpayers for an immediate $1.4 billion in funding for the wall, with an additional $2.6 billion planned for fiscal year 2018.

Trump says Mexico will ultimately pay for the wall, but has yet to specify how and when that might happen.

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