MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (AP) – Donald Trump called Monday for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” an idea swiftly condemned by his rival GOP candidates for president and other Republicans.
The proposed ban would apply to immigrants and visitors alike, a sweeping prohibition affecting all adherents of Islam who want to come to the U.S. The idea faced an immediate challenge to its legality and feasibility from experts who could point to no formal exclusion of immigrants based on religion in America’s history.
Trump’s campaign said in a statement such a ban should stand “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” It said the proposal comes in response to a level of hatred among “large segments of the Muslim population” toward Americans.
“Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life,” Trump said in the statement.
At an evening rally in South Carolina, Trump supporters cheered and shouted in support as he read his statement. Trump warned during his speech that without drastic action, the threat of attacks is “going to get worse and worse.”
“As he says, we have to find out who they are and why they are here,” Rod Weader, a 68-year-old real estate agent from North Charleston who attended the rally and said he agreed with Trump’s plan “150 percent.” ”Like he said, they are going to kill us and we’ve got to stop it.”
Since the Paris attacks, a number of Republican presidential contenders have proposed restrictions on Syrian refugees – with several suggesting preference for Christians seeking asylum – and tighter surveillance in the U.S.
But Trump’s proposed ban goes much further than those ideas, and his Republican rivals were quick to reject the latest provocation from a candidate who has delivered no shortage of them.
“Donald Trump is unhinged,” Jeb Bush said via Twitter. “His ‘policy’ proposals are not serious.”
John Kasich slammed Trump’s “outrageous divisiveness,” while a more measured Ted Cruz, who has always been cautious about upsetting Trump’s supporters, said, “Well, that is not my policy.”
Trump’s plan also drew criticism from the heads of the Republican Party in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the first three states to vote in next year’s presidential primaries.
New Hampshire GOP’s chairwoman Jennifer Horn said the idea is “un-Republican. It is unconstitutional. And it is un-American,” while South Carolina chairman Matt Moore said on Twitter, “As a conservative who truly cares about religious liberty, Donald Trump’s bad idea and rhetoric send a shiver down my spine.”
Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said Trump’s proposed ban would apply to “everybody,” including Muslims seeking immigration visas as well as tourists seeking to enter the country.
His campaign did not immediately respond to questions about whether it would also include Muslims who are U.S. citizens and travel outside of the country, including members of the military, or how a determination of someone’s religion might be made by customs and border officials.
Instead, Trump said via a campaign spokeswoman: “Because I am so politically correct, I would never be the one to say. You figure it out!”
There are more than 5,800 servicemen and women on active U.S. military duty and in the reserves who self-identify as Muslim and could be assigned to serve overseas. Trump said in an interview Monday night on Fox News, “They’ll come home.” He added, “This does not apply to people living in the country, except that we have to vigilant.”
It was also unclear whether Trump’s ban would apply to Muslim allies in the fight against Islamic State militants. Ari Fleischer, a former aide to Republican President George W. Bush, tweeted, “Under Trump, the King Abdullah of Jordan, who is fighting ISIS, won’t be allowed in the US to talk about how to fight ISIS.”
But at Trump’s rally in South Carolina, the proposed ban struck supporter Shelley Choquette as reasonable, because “it’s not going to be forever. I think everybody needs to be checked.”
Religion can factor into immigration decisions, but that typically happens when people are fleeing religious persecution. People of a particular religion may get favorable treatment by the United States, as when Russian Jews sought to leave the Soviet Union.
In the late 1800s, Congress passed legislation broadly aimed at halting Chinese immigration. But said Leti Volpp, a University of California expert on immigration law, “there is no precedent for a religious litmus test for admitting immigrants into the United States.”
“Excluding almost a quarter of the world’s population from setting foot in the United States based solely upon their religious identity would never pass constitutional muster,” Volpp said.
Trump’s proposal comes a day after President Barack Obama spoke to the nation from the Oval Office about the shootings in San Bernardino, California, which Obama said was “an act of terrorism designed to kill innocent people.”
The FBI said Monday the Muslim couple who carried out the massacre had been radicalized and had taken target practice at area gun ranges, in one case within days of the attack last week that killed 14 people.
Trump’s campaign has been marked by a pattern of inflammatory statements, dating back to his harsh rhetoric about Mexican immigrants. He has taken a particularly hard line against Muslims in the days since the Paris attacks, advocating enhanced surveillance of mosques due to fears over radicalization.
“Donald Trump sounds more like a leader of a lynch mob than a great nation like ours,” said Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “He and others are playing into the hands of ISIS. This is exactly what ISIS wants from Americans: to turn against each other.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest accused Trump of playing on people’s fears and trying to tap into “a darker side, a darker element” of American society.
From the Democratic presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders said “Trump and others want us to hate all Muslims” and Hillary Clinton called the proposal “reprehensible, prejudiced and divisive.”
On Capitol Hill, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said, “It’s just foolish.”
But will it hurt Trump in the campaign? “I have no idea,” McCain said. “I thought long ago that things he said would hurt his prospects, and he continues to go up.”