Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke dismissively about the state of Hawaii while criticizing a U.S. District Court ruling last month that blocked the Trump administration from carrying out its ban on travel from parts of the Muslim world.
“I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power,” Sessions said this week in an interview on “The Mark Levin Show,” a conservative talk radio program.
Sessions’ description of Hawaii, where the federal judge who issued the order, Derrick K. Watson, has his chambers, drew a rebuke from both of the U.S. senators who represent the state. Annexed as a U.S. territory in the late 19th century, Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959.
“Hawaii was built on the strength of diversity & immigrant experiences — including my own,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, wrote on Twitter. “Jeff Sessions’ comments are ignorant & dangerous.”
The other senator from Hawaii, Brian Schatz, who is also a Democrat, expressed similar sentiments, writing on Twitter: “Mr. Attorney General: You voted for that judge. And that island is called Oahu. It’s my home. Have some respect.”
Asked for a response from Sessions, Ian Prior, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said in an email: “Hawaii is, in fact, an island in the Pacific — a beautiful one where the attorney general’s granddaughter was born. The point, however, is that there is a problem when a flawed opinion by a single judge can block the president’s lawful exercise of authority to keep the entire country safe.”
(The state of Hawaii is a chain of islands, one of which is also called Hawaii; the judge’s chambers, however, are in Honolulu, which is on the island of Oahu.)
Watson, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, was confirmed in 2013 by a 94-0 vote; Sessions, then a U.S. senator from Alabama, was among those who cast an approving vote. A former federal prosecutor, Watson earned his law degree from Harvard alongside Obama and Neil M. Gorsuch, the newly seated Supreme Court justice. He is the only judge of Native Hawaiian descent on the federal bench.
Last month, Watson issued a nationwide injunction blocking President Donald Trump’s travel ban, ruling that the plaintiffs — the state of Hawaii and Ismail Elshikh, the imam of the Muslim Association of Hawaii — had reasonable grounds to challenge the order as religious discrimination. He cited comments dating to Trump’s original call, during the 2016 campaign, for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
During the arguments, the government had contended that looking beyond the text of the order to infer religious animus would amount to investigating Trump’s “veiled psyche,” but Watson wrote in his decision that there was “nothing ‘veiled'” about Trump’s public remarks. Still, Sessions reiterated that line of argument in the radio interview, saying he believed that the judge’s reasoning was improper and would be overturned.
“The judges don’t get to psychoanalyze the president to see if the order he issues is lawful,” Sessions said. “It’s either lawful or it’s not.”