Judges raise thorny questions about revised Trump travel ban

Protesters chant during a rally against travel ban at San Diego International Airport

Testy exchanges between judges and lawyers over Donald Trump's travel ban on Monday indicated that the legality of the president's executive order could be determined by his prior comments about Muslims.

A panel of 13 appeals court judges in Virginia will hear a challenge to President Donald Trump's revised executive order targeting six predominantly Muslim countries.

But critics said while the new executive order impacts fewer people, it remains a realization of Trump's promised Muslim ban and can not stand.

ABC's Cecilia Vega asked Spicer: "If the White House is no longer calling this a Muslim ban as the president did initially, why does the president's website still explicitly call for preventing Muslim immigration and it 'says Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shut down of Muslims entering the United States?'" His original statement remained on his campaign's website until sometime Monday, when it disappeared around the time a reporter asked about its continued presence online during the daily White House press briefing. Trump's detractors say it is beyond doubt that Muslims were the ban's intended target, but the administration says it is motivated strictly by national security concerns, an area where U.S. presidents have wide powers.

The Maryland federal judge had issued a nationwide block on the ban's core provision concerning travel from the Muslim world, saying the order raised the prospect of religious bias. The three judges assigned all are Democratic appointees.

Until Monday, that webpage lived on even as the Trump administration argued his executive order banning entry for citizens from six Muslim-majority countries was not based on religion.

No ruling was expected on Monday and it was unclear when the court would rule.

A federal judge in Hawaii then blocked the revised travel ban just hours before it was set to go into effect March 16. The third revision said the executive order only focused on individuals entering the United States without a Visa.

Arguing against the travel ban, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Omar Jadwat struggled when the judges pressed him to explain his opposition to the travel ban based just on the text-without taking Trump's campaign statements into consideration.

The Fourth Circuit typically leans left, and ten of the 15 judges on the court are either Clinton or Obama appointees.

The U.S. government appealed both cases, one to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and one to the Ninth Circuit.

Protesters hold signs and march in front of the State Capitol across the street from the USA 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., Monday, May 8, 2017.

Whatever the court rules, the case is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court, which would make the final decision.

Given the public importance of the case, the full appeals court in Richmond heard the arguments - bypassing the usual initial three-judge panel - for the first time in a quarter-century.

"This is not a Muslim ban", Wall told the judges.

I think what the President made clear - granted, he clarified this over time - but he made clear in the months leading up to the election and after the inauguration that what he was talking about was the threat from terrorist groups that operate in particular countries that have been designated state sponsors of terror, or designated countries of concern because they're safe havens for terrorists. They argued the travel ban has a negative effect on the state's economy, and would harm worldwide students and permanent residents. The administration also maintained that the travel and refugee ban was necessary to fight terrorism.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Wall, acting USA solicitor general, argued that Supreme Court's precedents give the chief executive broad power to restrict foreigners from entering the country.

The Trump administration maintains that the executive orders restricting travel from Muslim-majority nations does not target Muslims. Also, the US refugee resettlement program would be suspended for 120 days, and the order sought to reduce the annual number of refugee admissions to 50,000 for fiscal year 2017, from the usual 110,000.

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