Rarely do a presidential candidate’s own words so definitively haunt his presidency.
For the second time in two months, two federal judges on Wednesday refused to allow President Donald Trump to impose a travel ban, citing his campaign rhetoric as evidence of an improper desire to prevent Muslims from entering the United States.
The judges’ stunning rebukes were a vivid example of how Trump’s angry, often xenophobic rallying cries during the campaign — which were so effective in helping to get him elected — have become legal and political liabilities now that he is in the Oval Office.
It is a lesson that presidents usually learn quickly: Difficult and controversial issues can easily be painted as black-and-white during a long campaign, but they are often more complicated for those who are in a position to govern.
That is especially true for Trump’s bellicose remarks about immigrants, which animated his upstart presidential campaign but now threaten to get in the way of his broader agenda for a health care overhaul, tax cuts and infrastructure spending.
It all seemed so simple before.
Five days after terrorists in California killed 14 people in December 2015, Trump whipped up his supporters at a rally by vowing to impose a complete ban on entry by Muslims “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
The crowd roared its approval.
Later in the campaign, Trump backed away from calling for a total Muslim ban. But a judge in Hawaii who ruled on Wednesday appears to have concluded that Trump’s true motivations could be found by looking at his earlier remarks.
“These plainly worded statements,” wrote Judge Derrick K. Watson of Federal District Court in Honolulu, “betray the executive order’s stated secular purpose.”
Hours later, a second judge in Maryland also ruled against the core portions of the new travel ban, also citing Trump’s promise as a candidate to enact a ban on entry into the United States by Muslims.
Judge Theodore D. Chuang of Federal District Court in Greenbelt, Maryland, wrote that the likely purpose of Trump’s new order was “the effectuation of the proposed Muslim ban.”
The president and his aides deny that the president is targeting Muslims and have insisted that a temporary ban on travel for refugees and visitors from predominantly Muslim nations — seven that were singled out in Trump’s first order and six in his most recent revision — is necessary so that security officials can ensure proper vetting is conducted to prevent threats.
The courts have not agreed.
Trump’s first attempt to impose a travel ban was blocked by a federal judge in Washington state after several days of chaos in which travelers, including permanent residents and those holding valid U.S. visas, were prevented from entering.
The judge in the first case said there was no support for Trump’s argument “that we have to protect the U.S. from individuals from these countries.” An appeals court later agreed that the government had provided “no evidence” of a threat from those countries.
In the White House, Trump and his advisers say those courts were wrong, but they chose to write a narrower travel ban in the hopes of avoiding a lengthy legal battle that might take them all the way to the Supreme Court.
Now, the decision by the two judges to block even that narrower ban raises new questions about the administration’s legal acumen and undercuts its political strategy of seeking to move quickly to make good on the president’s promises.
Enraged, Trump lashed out during a rally in Nashville on Wednesday, accusing the Honolulu judge of ruling against him for political reasons and lamenting that the decision “makes us look weak.”
For Trump, being made to look weak by the court system may be the most infuriating part of his repeated legal losses.
During his campaign, the president displayed little patience with the courts, questioning one judge’s impartiality by accusing him — incorrectly — of being a “Mexican.” And after the judge in Seattle blocked his first travel ban in February, Trump called him a “so-called judge” on Twitter.
The White House may yet be vindicated. An appeals court might decide that the judge in Honolulu erred in his assessment of the new, more narrowly drawn travel ban. Or the Supreme Court could eventually intervene on his behalf.
But the political damage may already be done.
The first attempt at a travel ban by Trump and his senior aides — including Stephen Miller, his top adviser on immigration issues — was seen by many as a botched attempt to rush a complicated policy into effect with no planning.
Now, their second attempt, which was drafted with more care and was vetted with experts throughout the agencies, has been called into question as well.
It is unclear how the government will respond to the legal challenge. The judge in Hawaii conceded that Trump’s past statements would not “forever taint any effort” by the administration to address security concerns.
He left open the possibility that another version of a travel ban might pass muster with the court.
But Trump’s frustration was evident at the rally in Nashville, where he mused about returning to the first version of his travel ban — without explaining how he would get around the courts’ earlier rulings.
“Let me tell you something,” Trump told his enthusiastic supporters, echoing the simpler days of the campaign, when courts did not get in the way. “I think we ought to go back to the first one and go all the way. The danger is clear, the law is clear, the need for my executive order is clear.”
And yet, even now, the president may not fully appreciate the power — and the implications — of his words.
At the rally, Trump offered more verbal ammunition to support the critiques of the travel ban. The president called his latest effort to restrict entry merely “a watered-down version” of his first attempt, which was also blocked by the courts.
Those words could easily serve to undermine his own lawyers, who have argued strenuously that Version 2.0 of the travel ban is different enough that it should pass legal muster.
In the near future, the president may find an appeals court judge once again citing his words in support of a ruling that he doesn’t like.