North Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Tuesday defended Donald Trump’s comments about Muslims following the nightclub terror attack in Orlando.
Trump on Monday expanded his earlier call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. Now, he said, he wants to “suspend immigration from areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or our allies, until we fully understand how to end these threats.”
“The ban will be lifted when we as a nation are in a position to properly and perfectly screen those people coming into our country,” Trump said, according to a transcript provided by his campaign.
Afterward, he tweeted, “In my speech on protecting America I spoke about a temporary ban, which includes suspending immigration from nations tied to Islamic terror.”
To Burr, that meant a pause in such immigration, not a ban – even though Trump used both words.
“The speech said ‘pause’ – it did not say ‘ban,’ ” Burr said in talking with a handful of reporters Tuesday. “There’s a big difference in that.”
His defense of Trump came as other top Republicans disavowed Trump’s call for a Muslim ban. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Tuesday: “It's not reflective of our principles, not just as a party but as a country.”
When pressed on the wording of Trump’s remarks, Burr told reporters: “I’m telling you what I read in his speech. You can spin that however you want to. I heard the speech. He talked about a pause. He didn’t talk about ban.”
A “pause” would be enforced, Burr said, by making sure national security and immigration officials can “sufficiently sign off” on all people entering the country.
Burr noted that pauses have had bipartisan support. Last year, for example, calls for a pause in admitting Syrian refugees won such backing. And the U.S. adopted a more restrictive policy on visas for those holding passports from certain countries who sought to enter the United States.
Trump insists he could pursue his Muslim entry policy with an executive action – the sort of presidential tool that Burr and others have sharply criticized President Barack Obama for over the course of his two terms in office.
Trump said Monday the U.S. president has “the power to suspend entry into the country of any class of persons that the president deems detrimental to the interests or security of the United States, as he deems appropriate.”
Burr on Tuesday didn’t say whether he agreed with this approach. He told reporters: “You want me to use this president as a benchmark or you want me to say what I think? I think this president set up the current system the way he wanted.”
Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt said recently on his radio show that Burr might be a potential running mate for Trump.
Also Tuesday, in prepared remarks at a news conference, Burr said, “America is an open society. We value our freedom and diversity. ISIL (Islamic State) has leveraged those freedoms to their advantage to attract misguided individuals who carry out acts of hate.”
In North Carolina, the Democratic challenger Burr will face in November’s U.S. Senate race, Deborah Ross, said in a statement: “Instead of supporting an effort to prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns, Senator Burr is behind an unenforceable ban on people coming into the country based on their stated religious beliefs.”
In her statement to McClatchy, she called national security a “top priority.”
Thursday hearing to include CIA director
As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr plays a central role in discussions about terror attacks and oversight in the way the U.S. gathers national security information and what legislation is proposed.
On Thursday, Burr will guide the Senate committee as its members hear from CIA Director John Brennan on the Islamic State and other global terror threats. Experts say the hearing will likely include testimony about the Orlando attack, the ongoing fight with ISIS, as the Islamic State extremist group is known, and national security capabilities.
Burr’s comments about a potential Muslim ban or pause are likely more political statements influenced by Trump’s presence on the top of the Republican ticket this fall, rather than an indication of intelligence information shaping a specific policy view, says Joseph Wippl, a former CIA officer and current university professor with expertise in national security and terrorism.
Thursday’s hearing with the top CIA official could bring more political jockeying from both Republican and Democratic senators, he said.
Both Trump and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Wippl said, have weighed in on terrorism post-Orlando with political motives.
The Orlando nightclub shooting – which resulted in 50 deaths, including the accused gunman Omar Mateen – will likely come up at Thursday’s hearing but might not dominate the conversation, said national security expert Susan Hennessey, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The current investigation, Hennessey said, belongs to the FBI, not the CIA – which has an international human intelligence mission as opposed to the FBI’s domestic law enforcement work.
Still, she said, Burr and other members, including top Senate Intelligence Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, could use Thursday’s hearing to probe whether any government agency could have done more to prevent Mateen from carrying out the attack.