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Collins: Trump's Refugee Ban 'Likely Unconstitutional,' Bannon Appointment 'Entirely Inappropriate'

J. Scott Applewhite
Associated Press/file
Sen. Susan Collins speaks with reporters about President Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland on Capitol Hill last year.

Republican Maine U.S. Sen. Susan Collins says she's not surprised that people turned out to protest President Donald Trump's executive order in droves over the weekend. Collins joined Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent, and 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, in criticizing the order that bars citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days, and all refugees for 120 days.  Republican 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin has yet to weigh in on the issue.

A federal judge has temporarily blocked part of the order from taking effect, saying that individuals who arrived just after the order was signed could not be deported.  

In an interview with Maine Public Radio, Collins said she believes the stay by the judge was appropriate because Trump's order "clearly had not been vetted by the usual channels to make sure it that it was not overly broad, and was workable."

The order suspends Syrian refugees indefinitely.  According to the Washington Post and Bloomberg, Trump's order does not include any of the predominantly-Muslim countries where the Trump organization does business.  These include countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

President Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network on Friday that Christians will be given priority over other refugees to enter the country because they have been "horribly treated."  Trump used the example of Syrian Christians who he says have had a difficult time entering the United States. Syria's population, however, is nearly 90 percent Muslim.  

Collins says that kind of prioritizing should be off the table.  "There should never, never be a religious test for refugee status and people practicing a particular religion should not be subject to a higher burden of proof than those who adhere to another religion," she said. "And I believe it's likely unconstitutional." 

Collins points out that many Muslim refugees, such as those from Syria, are victims of terrorism themselves.   She says she agrees that more could be done to strengthen the vetting process for refugees, which is why she says she has co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from the state of Washington, to make greater use of enhanced screenings such as iris scans, for example.  

Immigration advocates say refugees already undergo an extremely rigorous vetting proces,s which is why, they say, that since 2001  no American has been killed by immigrants from any of the countries included in the ban.

In addition to Trump's refugee order, Collins says what she's most upset about is his decision to restructure the principals committee of the National Security Council, the senior intra agency group that considers policies affecting national security.  

President Trump is coming under fire for appointing his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, to the committee and diminishing the involvement of the director of National Intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who will be excluded from most meetings.  

Bannon formerly headed Breitbart News, a conservative media outlet considered to be the voice of the alt- right movement.

"Bannon...does not have the expertise that the director of National Intelligence or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have and this is entirely inappropriate," Collins said.  

In response she says she and former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut are drafting an opinion column to highlight the problems with such a shakeup.  Collins and Lieberman authored legislation in 2004 that created the position of the director of National Intelligence.  "I am very surprised, disappointed and very much disagree with the president's decision to restructure that important committee," Collins said.

As for whether she will approve the controversial nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Collins says she's still going through the transcript of his hearing before the Environment and Public Works Committee, and hasn't yet made up her mind.

Environmental groups have taken out television ads and waged a campaign against Pruitt's nomination. Collins is seen as a key vote for his endorsement. 

In general, Collins says she thinks presidents should be given considerable deference in assembling their cabinets, but, in Pruitt's case there are some red flags.  "I am concerned, based on the meeting I had with Scott Pruitt, about the number of times he has sued the very agency that he has now been tapped to lead," Collins said.

Pruitt's Senate confirmation vote is expected later this week.