Republicans in Congress might be searching for ways to distance themselves from President Donald Trump’s immigration order without disavowing his tough talk on security, but conservative activists from South Carolina and Florida to Texas have no patience for such nuance.
“This was not some surprise,” said Glenn McCall, the Republican national committeeman from South Carolina. “He campaigned on this. This is something, overwhelmingly, I would say, the folks in the state supported.”
Indeed, the White House’s executive order — signed late Friday afternoon to restrict immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries for several months and to bar refugees for even longer — is exactly in line with what candidate Trump promised.
It was condemned worldwide over the weekend, as television networks provided blanket coverage of protests at airports in major American cities and some individuals, including people who work with the U.S. military overseas, were stuck in limbo as officials tried to parse the executive order and a court’s stay.
Meanwhile, members of Congress — not to mention several of Trump’s own selections for Cabinet positions — were caught off guard by the measure, which has since been lambasted by Democrats and some Republicans as being excessively broad.
But Republican activists are now circling the wagons, excusing Trump for the confusion and lashing out at lawmakers who, in their view, were too quick to criticize.
It’s the latest evidence that the post-campaign GOP base is firmly in Trump’s corner, and has little appetite for any questioning of his authority early on in his White House tenure, especially by members of his own party. That attitude among activists helps explain why some Republican lawmakers have kept their heads down; even relatively gentle criticism of Trump, especially on a national security or immigration issue, can be politically perilous back home.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., waited until Sunday night to weigh in, offering a joint statement with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., in which the pair expressed uneasiness about the order and said they had further questions. It was a more mild statement than other lawmakers offered and came two days after the order was signed — but it still didn’t sit well with some activists back home.
“I just wish he had taken a breath and read the text,” Hillsborough County, Florida, GOP Chair Deborah Tamargo said of Rubio.
“Donald Trump campaigned on extreme vetting. The majority of people that voted for him give you two reasons: One was safety, the other was the economic piece, but the safety piece, by and large, the majority of people are very happy he’s taken steps to safeguard our safety,” Tamargo said.
A Rubio spokesman did not offer comment when asked, though Rubio said Monday that, as constituents raised concerns, he was continuing to have a difficult time getting specific answers about the order from the State Department, a remark Foggy Bottom denies.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has been more pointed in his criticism of the executive order, releasing a joint statement with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in which the pair laid out extensive concerns. The two relatively centrist Republican senators have emerged as among the most willing officials in the GOP to break with Trump — and in South Carolina, activists are steamed, McCall said.
“They’re really upset, and would like for him to give the president and his team a little more leeway,” McCall said, noting that the administration has sought to correct for one of Graham’s concerns, tied to green card holders — though that was not the senator’s only issue with the executive order.
“What I’m hearing is people are very supportive of it,” McCall said of the executive order. “They’re really behind the president and his team as it relates to it. This is just one of a number of reasons they supported and voted for President Trump.”
Asked for comment, Kevin Bishop, Graham’s communications director, offered an example of an individual caught up in the executive order that hits close to home. Nazanin Zinouri, a graduate of a Ph.D. program at South Carolina’s Clemson University, has not been able to re-enter the United States after visiting family in Iran because of the stringent travel ban. Graham has been working to help her, he tweeted Monday.
But many Republican activists stress that the ban is temporary — even though its time frame, especially for refugees, is unclear — and they are inclined to dismiss much of the reporting on the backlash as more media overkill.
“I bet it strikes a lot of Texas Republicans, and Texans generally, as a lot of hysteria over issues that were already debated and largely determined by the outcome of the election,” said Ray Sullivan, a veteran Texas Republican operative. “Trump campaigned, and arguably won the election, based on his border and immigration positions, as well as a more populist economic message. Voters in general, and certainly Texas Republican voters, fully expect him to do what he said he would do on the campaign trail.”
The vast majority of the Texas Republican delegation is backing up the executive order — though a number, including House Homeland Security Chair Michael McCaul, R-Texas, have called for adjustments (only one Republican member from Texas, Rep. Will Hurd, has fully disavowed it so far, and he comes from a battleground district, a rarity in deep-red Texas). Sullivan noted that on the whole, there have not been many Texas GOP voices willing to go as far as Graham and McCain in breaking with Trump — “and I doubt there will be anytime soon,” he said.
“Texas Republicans, if not fully supportive of the Trump administration, are willing to give him a lot of leeway to fulfill his campaign pledges and continue to build his administration and his governing style,” he said.
Even some Republicans who opposed Trump during the campaign are unwilling to dismiss the ban out of hand.
Former Charlotte, North Carolina, Mayor Richard Vinroot, a Republican, didn’t vote for president because he found Trump “unpresidential in many, many ways.” But he has been pleased with Trump’s Cabinet appointments and is reserving judgment on the ban, because it was a core Trump campaign promise — and that vision won.
“I know it was one of his campaign promises. I’m a little concerned it wasn’t fully vetted, apparently, by a lot of normal people who review these things, but there’s no doubt he campaigned on this very point,” Vinroot said. “I’m not at all surprised. I took him at his word.”