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Senior GOP Lawmakers Were Left In The Dark On Trump's Immigration Order

Though the White House has said repeatedly that Republicans in Congress were briefed, or even wrote the executive order, some of the top GOP members and their staffs on Capitol Hill were blindsided by aspects of the order.

Last updated on January 30, 2017, at 5:35 p.m. ET

Posted on January 30, 2017, at 5:35 p.m. ET

Pro-immigration demonstrators cheer and hold signs as international passengers arrive at Dulles International Airport, to protest President Donald Trump's executive order Sunday.
Mike Theiler / Reuters

Pro-immigration demonstrators cheer and hold signs as international passengers arrive at Dulles International Airport, to protest President Donald Trump's executive order Sunday.

WASHINGTON — Senior Republican lawmakers who work on national security issues, including the entire members of both Homeland Security committees, were not informed of "red flag" changes made to a draft of Donald Trump's recent controversial executive order on immigration until hours after the president signed it, sources says.

This version of Friday's events appears to contradict, at least partially, what the White House has said about congressional involvement in drafting and reviewing the executive order before it was signed. A senior administration official initially said over the weekend that "top immigration experts on Capitol Hill" drafted the executive action. "Republicans on Capitol Hill wrote it," the official told pool reporters on Sunday.

White House spokesperson Sean Spicer doubled down on congressional involvement during a press briefing on Monday. Asked about Capitol Hill staff who say they weren't briefed on the executive order, Spicer turned the question back on reporters: "535 offices, plus territories, you talked to them all?"

"As was told to you last night, there were staff from appropriate committees and leadership offices that were involved," Spicer said.

However, many Republican and Democratic members were not briefed on the final version of the executive order before Trump signed it on Friday, including the entire House Homeland Security committee and at least some members of the Senate Homeland Security committee.

"The House Homeland Security committee was not consulted on the final draft of the executive order," said a GOP aide.

And while some Republican members have said that the order is similar to legislation passed by the House last year after the Paris attacks, it includes new language on current US green card and visa holders that shocked many members of Congress.

"Total BS," a senior Republican aide familiar with the matter said in response to Spicer's assertion Monday that the "appropriate committees" were briefed on the order. "We got an eleventh-hour phone call the day of to let us know it was about to happen. Precisely zero formal consultation before that, just like [the Department of Homeland Security] itself."

Sen. Rob Portman, a member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, criticized the lack of scrutiny given to the order before it was signed, saying on CNN this weekend that "an extreme vetting program that wasn't properly vetted." His spokesman Kevin Smith told BuzzFeed News in an email Monday that "Senator Portman and his staff were not consulted about the EO in advance of its rollout."

Similarly, Sen. Bob Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was not consulted or briefed on the order, an aide confirmed on Monday. "I think they understand that this was not handled in the most productive manner," Corker told Bloomberg.

The senior Republican aide familiar with the matter said that while some lawmakers had seen an early draft of the order, they were blindsided by the contents of the final version and did not see it until it was made public Friday night.

"Friday we were operating under the assumption that the draft executive order that had circulated earlier in the week was going to reflect the final version," the source said. "There didn't appear to be too many issues."

But "it was hours" before members and staff saw the final version of the executive action signed Friday by Trump "because coordination was so poor," the aide added.

"By the time we digested the changes and reviewed the final order, it was clear there were serious shortcomings and problems," the source said.

One of the problems for some Republican members is the fact that the ban was being used to halt people with valid US visas and green cards at US airports over the weekend, instead of just temporarily stopping the issuance of new visas, which the source called a "major red flag."

"It was chaotic and very uncoordinated and it caused not only a lot of concern and problems on Capitol Hill, it caused obviously a big PR backlash for the administration," the first Republican aide said. "They seemed to sit and watch for about 48 hours before they decided to come out" and clarify that green card holders and permanent residents weren't included in the ban.

"It was a total cluster [...] It was a complete cluster and the organization and the coordination really needs to improve dramatically and quickly," the aide added.

Democrats on the two Homeland Security committees were apparently not briefed on the executive order either, two Democratic sources said. One Senate Democratic office said they were given a draft of the order early on by an "advocacy group," which the aide declined to identify, but noted, as Republicans did, that the draft they saw was significantly different from what Trump signed. It's unclear if the draft viewed by Democrats was the same one that Republicans viewed.

“We got no notice. We got no briefing, we got nothing from the administration," the Democratic aide said.

The executive order that Trump signed Friday halted travel to the US for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen. It also suspended the US refugee program for four months and indefinitely halted the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the US.

After the executive order was signed, border agents detained more than 100 people — including US green card holders and small children — at airports across the US, prompting protests in more than a dozen major cities.

Republicans on Capitol Hill began publicly criticizing Trump's executive order as public outcry amplified throughout the weekend. On Sunday evening, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul issued a statement saying "it is clear adjustments are needed" after telling cable news channels on Friday that Trump's executive orders made it "a safer day for America."

"In the future, such policy changes should be better coordinated with the agencies implementing them and with Congress to ensure we get it right—and don’t undermine our nation’s credibility while trying to restore it,” McCaul said in the Sunday statement.

The New York Times reported that Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly was only briefed on the executive order as Trump signed it.

The White House has continued to defend the ban, claiming it will protect the country against terrorists, despite global confusion about how it should be interpreted and court orders seeking to overturn it. Trump tweeted on Saturday that the US "needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW."

Countries whose dual citizens would be affected were left scrambling over the weekend as well. In Canada, for instance — where at least 35,000 people share nationality with one of the seven banned countries — the prime minister's national security advisor said first learned of Trump's executive order in the media.

Sarah Mimms contributed to this report.

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