WASHINGTON — President Trump is poised to put a harsher and more isolationist stamp on US policy toward Muslims, with a temporary halt on America’s longstanding tradition of welcoming refugees from war torn countries, and a possible return to torturing terror suspects.
An order that could be signed as early as Thursday would temporarily close down the country’s refugee program. And it would put a 30-day ban on people coming from Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Iran, and Iraq, according to a draft obtained by the Globe. It would also reduce the number of refugees America accepts to 50,000 from about 100,000 and require federal agencies to come up with a new more stringent way of vetting any foreigners seeking to live here.
A separate order, also obtained by the Globe, would require top intelligence and military agencies to study reopening secret CIA prisons overseas called “black sites” and re-initiating an interrogation program that was widely abused during the Bush administration.
Taken together, the proposals would reverse US policy toward many Muslims.Trump believes strong action is required to keep America safe, but critics from across the political spectrum said it would sacrifice America’s historic open-armed stance to refugees, while delivering potent recruiting propaganda points to Islamic terror groups around the globe.
Critics also say the new initiatives will make it more difficult to forge the ties with Muslim communities that are needed to combat terror.
It’s an unusually sweeping change given that there hasn’t been a specific terror event prompting the new policies. The Bush-era rules were born out of the sense of emergency that came after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Trump separately offered an endorsement for torture in an interview with ABC’s David Muir that was broadcast Wednesday evening.
“Do I feel it works? Absolutely, I feel it works,” Trump said. He added that he would defer to his Cabinet secretaries in determining whether or not the United States should try to use those methods.
Under current law, torture is prohibited.
On Wednesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer batted away questions about the possible return to Bush-era intelligence practices at “black sites.” “I have no idea where it came from,” he said of the report.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican nominee for president and a opponent of torture, offered a firm warning.
“The president can sign whatever executive orders he likes,” said McCain, who was tortured as a POW. “But the law is the law. We are not bringing back torture in the United States of America.”
The policies, if they come to pass, would also make good on a Trump campaign promise to find ways to keep Muslims out of the country. In December 2015, then candidate Trump issued the following statement: “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
He later clarified that he would impose a temporary ban on people coming from certain countries.
Spicer, on Wednesday, offered broad comments on possible changes to the country’s immigration practices.
“The president has spoken extensively about extreme vetting,” said Spicer.
He said the president wants to “take the appropriate steps” to be sure immigrants are “coming to this country for all the right reasons.”
The new approach would harken back to immigration policy of the 1950s and 1960s that included country-specific restrictions, said immigration experts who were scrambling on Wednesday to understand the implications of the orders.
“This is extreme,” said Justin Cox, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. “It communicates a particular hostility to Islam.”
He said it’s rare for American policy to block all immigrants from a specific country. The draft order specifically includes a ban on Syrian nationals hoping to come here.
“It’s sending a message that we’re no longer living up to the values that are carved in our monuments,” Cox said.
Cox noted that the vetting for the US refugee program is already extremely stringent, and the people who’ve passed muster are among the most vulnerable members of society.
The draft does leave open an option for exceptions on a case-by-case basis, with priority given to those who are religious minorities and being persecuted due to their faith. This is widely seen as a carve-out for Christian minorities, since the countries affected by the temporary ban are all mostly Muslim.
Non-US citizens who’ve recently visited Iraq and Syria would also been barred from entry, according to the draft. That could have the effect of banning tens of thousands of religious and relief workers from Western countries from coming to the United States and working here.
The draft order was created to bolster security in the United States, but critics said it is likely to have the exact opposite effect.
“This is the kind of thing that ISIS uses to attack us and attack our troops overseas,” said US Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, who served four tours of duty as a Marine infantry officer in Iraq.
He accused Trump of putting US troops and citizens at risk “to make a political point.”
“That’s frightening because he is the commander-in-chief and he is supposed to be keeping us safe,” Moulton said.
“If we want to win the war on terror, we need to strengthen our Muslim allies, and the people who want to come to America are the ones fleeing the terrorists we want to fight, so they are our allies,” he said.
Critics also fear that revisiting America’s widely discredited secret interrogation policies could have the unintended consequence of giving other countries an excuse to initiate or expand their own harsh versions of the programs, including torture of US citizens or allies.
“The reason we reported on the secret prisons and Gitmo is not because it was the worst human rights abuse of all time,” said John Sifton, the deputy Washington director with Human Rights Watch. “It was the pernicious effect that occurs when the most powerful country in the world is saying you can do these things. Now every country in the world can say, ‘Well the Untied States is doing it so why are you complaining about us?’ ”
Some in Washington have been comforted by the fact that James Mattis, Trump’s new secretary of defense, has said he does not support the use of torture and could therefore offer strong resistance to the more extreme ideas coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
But Sifton warned that the White House would be able to circumvent departments easily if Trump chooses to fully embrace the Bush-era policies toward terror suspects.
“If the White House wants to do something, you can always find a clique within the administration who are willing to do this stuff,” Sifton said. “The White House can just set up some kind of group that does what they want it to do.”
These new proposals to limit US engagement with Muslims were being discussed in Washington on the six-year anniversary of the start of the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt — a fleeting moment where it looked as though the Muslim world was tilting toward Western values.Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.