Attorney General who helped block Muslim ban says Trump 'doesn't understand the power of the presidency'

Exclusive: Hawaii's Douglas Chin says Mr Trump is 'exploiting' his power

Emily Shugerman
New York
Tuesday 09 May 2017 22:15 BST
Mr Chin talks to the media at the US District Court Ninth Circuit in Honolulu
Mr Chin talks to the media at the US District Court Ninth Circuit in Honolulu (Reuters)

Hawaii Attorney General Douglas Chin isn’t mad, just disappointed.

The Stanford-educated lawyer who successfully brought about a block on Donald Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban” says the Trump administration's attacks on the judiciary are cause for concern.

“I think what makes it more discouraging [is] when you have people at the highest levels of government making those statements,” Mr Chin told The Independent. “It’s almost like they don’t understand that power that comes with the office that they have, or that they’re exploiting it unnecessarily.”

The 50-year-old attorney faced his own share of criticism this March, when he filed suit against Mr Trump’s executive order on international travel.

The Trump team has tried to argue that the order – which blocks new visas from six Muslim-majority countries – does not amount to a ban on Muslims. Most recently, Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall, tried to convince the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virgina that the travel ban is not the same as the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” that Mr Trump promised during his campaign.

"This is not a Muslim ban," Mr Wall said. "Its text doesn't have anything to do with religion. Its operation doesn't have anything to do with religion."

But Mr Chin told Hawaii federal judge Derrick Watson otherwise, arguing that the order is like a “neon sign flashing ‘Muslim ban, Muslim ban.’”

“[Under the order,] If you come from one of these countries it doesn’t matter if you’re a baby or a spouse of a citizen, you’re presumptively a terrorist,” he said. “That is, by itself, a disenfranchising statement that was being made by the highest levels of government toward an entire class of people.”

Mr Watson agreed. The federal judge issued a nationwide temporary restraining order blocking the ban’s implementation on 16 March.

In a speech that night, the president called the ruling a “terrible decision” and vowed to take it to the Supreme Court.

“I think we ought to go back to the first [executive order] and go all the way … We’re gonna win it, we’re gonna win it.” Mr Trump promised supporters.

The US attorney general has made it clear he supports the president’s order. In the weeks following the decision, Mr Sessions made the rounds on cable new shows, referring to Mr Watson as an “unelected judge” and Hawaii as “an island in the Pacific.”

“It is a point worth making that a single sitting district judge – out of 600, 700 district judges – can issue an order stopping a presidential executive order that I believe is fully constitutional; designed to protect America from a terrorist attack,” he told CNN’s Kate Bolduan.

Asked about Mr Sessions’ comments, Mr Chin seemed flabbergasted.

“To me, these kinds of statements just don’t jibe with what we grew up learning,” he told The Independent. “The whole point of what America stands for is the idea that you can have an executive that a gets checked by the two other branches – and that includes the judiciary.”

And as for the “unelected” barb, Mr Chin explained the importance of having appointed members of the judiciary: Judges who are divorced from the election cycle are also separated from interest groups, lobbyists, and the latest polls. This, Mr Chin said, allows them to rule based on wisdom, rather than whim.

Even more so than Mr Sessions' comments, Mr Chin says he was surprised by the public's response to the ban.

The first version of the executive order sparked record protests at airports around the US, where supporters gathered to assist travellers who had found themselves suddenly blocked from entering the country. The first judge to block the executive was the subject of fawning profiles in the Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN.

Mr Chin received his fair share of adulation after the decision too. The deep-voiced attorney general booked several television interviews and earned the requisite "Who is Douglas Chin?" explainer on Commenters on Twitter applauded his assertive response to Mr Sessions’ attacks.

But there was another cohort – a group Mr Chin described as “very vocal” – who didn’t agree with his decision. They flooded his email inbox with letters, and his office with angry phone calls.

Surprisingly, however, Mr Chin says he understands where they’re coming from.

“The people who responded were very emotional, very concerned about Muslims being terrorists, and just very fearful of what could happen in their personal lives if the president's orders weren’t followed,” Mr Chin said.

“We all live in a time where there's a lot of fear out there as to what terrorists can do, and how that can affect our lives,” he continued, adding, “I’m scared too.”

In fact, in case anyone was curious, the lawyer who helped block the executive order meant to end terrorism in the United States is actually a big supporter of national security.

“I actually do believe that it is the responsibility of the national government to protect our security and protect our borders,” he said. “But do it in a way that doesn’t violate people's’ constitutional rights.”

The US 9th Circuit Court will hear a Trump administration's appeal to the Hawaii restraining order on 15 May. In a court brief filed in advance of the hearing, the Hawaii Department of Justice issued a warning to the president: “The Constitution is not so easily cast aside.”

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