Jeff Sessions on Sunday declined to apologize for his controversial remarks about Hawaii this week, which the attorney general dismissed as “an island in the Pacific” while criticising a judge’s decision to block Donald Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries. “Nobody has a sense of humour any more,” Jeff Sessions said in an interview with ABC’s This Week, two days after he told CNN: “I wasn’t criticising the judge or the island.” Speaking to CNN, Sessions added: “I think it’s a fabulous place and had a granddaughter born there. But I got to tell you, it’s a point worth making that a single sitting judge out of 600, 700 district judges can issue an order stopping a presidential executive order that I believe is fully constitutional, designed to protect the United States of America from terrorist attacks.”
Trump’s travel ban order was his second attempt to impose drastic limits on travellers and refugees from six Muslim-majority countries. In March, Derrick Kahala Watson, the only Hawaiian-born federal judge now serving on a bench, issued a nationwide stay against it. Watson found grounds for a violation of the constitutional prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion. His ruling, like those by other judges that stayed Trump’s first attempted travel ban in January, prompted furious complaint from the administration about supposed judicial overreach.
“This order is lawful,” Sessions said on Sunday. “It’s within [the president’s] authority constitutionally and [his] explicit statutory authority. We’re going to defend that order all the way up and so you do have a situation in which one judge out of 700 in America has stopped this order.” A federal judge in Maryland also issued a stay against the second travel ban, although with a more limited scope.
“I think it’s a mistake,” Sessions said, “and we’re going to battle in the courtsand I think we’re going to eventually win.”
The controversy over Sessions’ description of Hawaii erupted on Tuesday. In an interview with the conservative radio host Mark Levin, the attorney general said: “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.”
Attorneys and legal experts reacted with alarm that the country’s top prosecutor would question the authority of the judiciary, as the third independent branch of government to the president and Congress. Trump has repeatedly questioned the motives of judges who have ruled against his efforts, raising fears that he might undermine the legitimacy of courts. Hawaiians, including the state’s two US senators, both Democrats, reacted angrily to Sessions’ remarks. Senator Mazie Hirono said the remark was “dangerous, ignorant and prejudiced” and an attack “against the very tenets of our constitution and democracy”.
Senator Brian Schatz tweeted to Sessions about his time as a senator from Alabama, saying: “Mr Attorney General: You voted for that judge. And that island is called Oahu. It’s my home. Have some respect.”
Schatz also wrote: “State of Hawaii has many islands, not one island. We have around 1.5m people. Island of Hawaii has 186,000 people. Please use the google.” Representative Tulsi Gabbard, another high-profile Democrat, wrote that she was “amazed [Sessions] doesn’t know Hawaii is a state” and added: “Another reason Sessions should step down.”
On Friday, the justice department attempted to clarify Sessions’ remarks, saying in a statement: “Hawaii is, in fact, an island in the Pacific.”
The statement added: “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.”