Barack Obama’s office on Monday criticized President Trump’s travel ban, hailing protests against the order and saying the former president disagrees with policies that discriminate against people because of their faith.
Obama’s comments, his first public remarks since leaving office, heightened tensions surrounding Trump’s controversial executive orders, which have divided his party while winning universal disdain from Democrats. Trump’s far-reaching order halts the Syrian refugee program indefinitely, blocks all refugee admissions for four months and bans citizens of Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Yemen from entering the U.S. for at least 90 days.
The White House on Monday doubled down, decrying media coverage of the orders as overheated and insisting a majority in the U.S. was solidly behind Trump’s policies.
“The American people support what the president’s doing,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters during an intense daily briefing. “Everyone in here needs to get out of Washington once in a while and go talk to people throughout America that are pleased that this president is taking the steps necessary to protect this country.”
Democrats protested the order Monday evening on the steps of the Supreme Court, a setting that foreshadowed the fight to come Tuesday over Trump’s pick to replace Justice Antonin Scalia.
The statement from Obama was carefully worded and stopped short of labeling Trump’s policy a “Muslim ban” — a move many other Democrats have made.
But Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis pushed back against Trump’s claim Obama enacted a similar policy against Iraqi refugees in 2011, saying the former president “fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion.”
Lewis said Obama is “heartened” by the protests because he believes it’s important for people to speak out when “American values are at stake.”
Former presidents traditionally defer to their successors, and Obama long expressed a desire to stay out of the political limelight after leaving office.