On Tuesday, the Supreme Court handed the president a huge victory in Trump v. Hawaii, the case challenging the legality of his executive order barring citizens of five Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. The verdict upholding the ban generated a wave of condemnation across the country, as well as comparisons to some of the most ignominious court decisions in U.S. history. On this special episode of Deconstructed, Mehdi Hasan speaks with Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim-American ever elected to Congress, as well as Yemeni-American community organizer and anti-ban activist Debbie Almontaser, about the consequences of the decision — and where we go from here.
Congressman Keith Ellison: It’ll be thrown in the dustbin of history, and it’ll be something that we look back on in shame. It’s just important for people to keep the faith, keep on pushing, keep voting, keep protesting — perhaps more than ever.
Mehdi Hasan: Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Korematsu v. United States and now Trump v. Hawaii, the latest shameful and despicable ruling from the United States Supreme Court, upholding Donald Trump’s Muslim ban as legitimate.
Shihab Rattansi: Donald Trump is celebrating what he says is a clear victory for national security after the Supreme Court partially reinstated its travel ban on people from six Muslim-majority countries.
I’m Mehdi Hasan, and welcome to this special early episode of Deconstructed, where we’re reacting to that major Supreme Court ruling, and talking to leading Muslim Americans about where we go from here.
KE: Thank you for asking me how I feel. Because I’m doing a lot of feeling right now. This is the time when you have to have faith that if you keep on pushing and stand up for what’s right and telling the truth, then we will, God willing, prevail.
MH: That was Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim American to ever be elected to Congress, he’s on the show today, as is Yemeni-American community organizer and anti-ban activist Debbie Almontaser:
Debbie Almontaser: This morning, when I heard the decision, I simply felt like someone punched me so hard in the stomach, I could not believe what I was reading.
MH: So this week, the Supreme Court and the Muslim Ban.
MH: Do you remember where you were? I remember where I was in December 2015 when candidate Donald Trump made this now-infamous announcement:
President Donald J. Trump: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.
MH: I was actually out of the country in the U.K., on a brief work trip, and I remember joking with friends there whether or not I, as a Muslim immigrant to the United States, albeit a green-card holder, would be allowed back into the U.S. the following day. I even tweeted a picture of the arrivals hall at Dulles airport in DC, once I arrived back, and triumphantly tagged @realDonaldTrump in the tweet.
Because while it was disturbing and depressing to see a candidate for president unveil such a monstrous and clearly bigoted proposal — which even the man who he would later make his vice-president at the time called “offensive and unconstitutional” — Trump then was still seen as a bit of a joke: a bigoted joke, but a joke nevertheless.
There were some who said Trump, the open Islamophobe, the anti-Muslim bigot wouldn’t win; I foolishly was one of them. And there were some who said that if he did win, and did succeed in bringing in a Muslim ban of any kind — well, the Supreme Court would shoot it down. Well, this morning, we got our answer to that:
Pete Williams: The decision says that President Trump wins. The Supreme Court has upheld the President’s travel ban.
DJT: Today, the Supreme Court ruling, just coming out a tremendous success, a tremendous victory for the American people, and for our Constitution. This is a great victory for our Constitution.
MH: The Supreme Court ruled on straight partisan lines, it was a 5-4 decision: five conservatives in favor of Trump, in favor of anti-Muslim bigotry and four liberals trying to hold the line against it.
By the way, before I go further, let’s be clear about our terminology: This is a Muslim ban that we’re talking about. A Muslim ban. Don’t give me that bullshit about it being a travel ban, or that because they threw in North Korea and a few folks from Venezuela to add to the list of Yemen, Somalia, Iran, Syria and Libya, that it’s not a Muslim ban. By the way: How long ’til North Korea gets off the list, do you think, given the current love-in between Trump and Kim Jong Un?
Look, the fact is that the vast majority of the countries, on the list are Muslim majority countries and the vast majority of the people, the millions of people affected by this ban, the vast majority of them are Muslim.
I mean, Rudy Giuliani, who is Donald Trump’s lawyer and was then a close ally and adviser of his, said live on Fox News last January, that it was a Muslim ban:
Rudy Giuliani: So, when he first announced it, he said “Muslim ban.” He called me up, he said: “Put a commission together, show me the right way to do it legally.”
MH: Case closed. It is a Muslim ban today; it was a Muslim ban yesterday; it will be a Muslim ban tomorrow. The fact that Trump tried to do it legally is irrelevant.
This is a president, lest we forget, who said he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. who said:
DJT: I think Islam hates us.
MH: Who said he’d consider a Muslim database, a registry; who falsely accused Muslim Americans of celebrating on 9/11, whose response to the question of how his policies towards Muslims would differ from the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews was, “You tell me.”
NBC Reporter: Is there a difference between requiring Muslims to register, and Jews?
DJT: You tell me, you tell me.
NBC Reporter: Do you believe?
DJT: Why don’t you tell me?
NBC Reporter: Do you believe there is?
DJT: You tell me.
MH: Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a scathing dissent against the majority verdict this morning, not only compared today’s ruling to the Korematsu decision of 1944, in which the court signed off on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II by FDR, but she also said the court was completely wrong to ignore Trump’s history of anti-Muslim bigotry, which provides the background, the context, for this ban and the intent behind the ban. She wrote, and I quote:
“The majority here completely sets aside the President’s charged statements about Muslims as irrelevant…That holding erodes the foundational principles of religious tolerance that the court elsewhere has so emphatically protected, and it tells members of minority religions in our country “that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.'”
Let’s just stop there for a moment. Not fully members of the community. I’m the father of two Muslim-American kids. My daughter is 11 years old. I didn’t have a chance to speak to her this morning as I rushed out of the house, rushed here to the studio to record this special episode of the podcast. But I’m kind of glad I didn’t speak to her. Because I don’t know what I would have said to her; I don’t know what I’m going to say to her when I get home today, because she watches the news. She hears what’s going on.
How do you explain to a Muslim-American kid that her president, supposedly the president of all Americans, is banning Muslims, is banning people who look like her, have names like hers, who pray like her, from entering this country because of their faith, because of their religious background? How do you do that?
And by the way, on this whole this is not a Muslim ban thing? Just because the Supreme Court has issued a lengthy judicial ruling upholding the ban, saying its legitimate, saying the president had the power to do it, let’s not allow ourselves to forget some of the patently absurd and dishonest arguments made in favor of the ban by Trump and by his Republican apologists over the past year and a half:
This is about national security, they said. Despite the fact that the number of Americans killed on U.S. soil by citizens from countries on the banned list is exactly zero. Zero!
This is about vetting refugees from Syria, they said. Despite the fact that it is near-impossible for a Syrian refugee to get into the United States without already going through quote-unquote “extreme vetting” both from the United Nations and from the FBI.
This isn’t about security, this isn’t about vetting, this Muslim ban is about white nationalism: just as stripping brown kids from their parents at the border isn’t about security or vetting, it’s about white nationalism.
Wake up America, wake up media, and smell the racist coffee. This is not a drill. This is the real thing; the United States is being governed by a group of racists, nationalists and, yes, wannabe fascists, who it turns out have the full blessing and protection of a nakedly partisan and rigged judiciary — yes, rigged. Let’s not forget that the Republican 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court this morning only happened because the Republican Party stole a Supreme Court seat that should have been filled by President Obama in his last year in office.
But, look: We can complain all we want about Supreme Court fixes and the pro-Trump Electoral College, but we are where we are. We now have to look forward, not back. How do we push back against decisions like this going forward? How do we stand with those families who won’t be able to see or meet the people they love because of this cruel and discriminatory ban? How do we make stand with kids from Muslim communities, minority communities, migrant communities, who are seeing kids being banned from the U.S., who are seeing kids being stripped from their parent? How do we make sure that we don’t become immune to this stuff, turn a blind eye to this stuff? Because there’s so much of this racist, discriminatory stuff around. I get it. It’s exhausting. Last week was caged kids, this week is Muslim ban; it’s easy to want to switch off, to want to look away.
But we can’t afford to. And I say this to my American friends and neighbors, as well to my fellow journalists here in the United States: We Muslims, and our Latino brothers and sisters at the border, are the canaries in the coalmine, and we’re not just chirping right now, we’re screaming. This is not a drill.
My guest today is one of America’s leading progressive politicians. He recently wrote a brilliant op-ed for the Guardian calling on European governments to target Trump’s businesses with financial penalties as a way of changing the president’s behavior. He’s also the first-ever Muslim American to be elected to the United States Congress and he’s now running to be attorney general of the state of Minnesota.
So who better to speak to for reaction to this horrific Supreme Court ruling than Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison, who’s also deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, the DNC?
Keith Ellison, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
Congressman Keith Ellison: Oh yeah, I’m glad to be on with you.
MH: Keith, a depressing day. You’ve been very active on Twitter this morning talking about this. Give us your initial response to this verdict from the Supreme Court.
KE: Well, this verdict is a rubber-stamping by the Supreme Court of a discriminatory policy by the Trump administration. The Trump administration is now been — they’ve gone from saying they want a complete and total ban on Muslim entry, to oh, it’s just a travel ban on Muslim countries, plus a few elites in Venezuela and North Korea, which doesn’t really have access anyway. So, essentially, it is what it was. And the Supreme Court has just said: No matter how discriminatory, no matter how ugly, that if the president wants to do this and he can offer a national security excuse, then they’ll rubber-stamp that.
And this is really sad because we’ve seen these kinds of failures by Supreme Courts over the years. You know, we all know Dred Scott, where they ratified slavery. We know Plessy, where they said separate but equal. They ratified Korematsu, where they said it was OK to intern Japanese Americans, U.S. citizens. So this is this ugly issue, but there’s also another history and that is people pushing back, people fighting back, people litigating, marching, protesting, speaking out and that is what I’m counting on now.
MH: Yeah. A lot of people, today, are going to be very dejected, they’re going to be really dispirited because they went to the court. I mean this is the whole reason it got to the Supreme Court was because lower-level federal judges did take on the Trump Administration, did shoot it down as discriminatory. Now it’s gone to the highest court in the land and they, as you say, have rubber-stamped it.
Where do we go legally, judicially from here? You’re running for attorney general of Minnesota; a lot of states attorney generals have tried to push back against Trump. What’s the legal strategy, before we get to the politics. Is there any?
KE: Well, I think that there absolutely is because the Supreme Court made a decision that I think is wrong, is not based on the facts. I mean we could continue this battle in the courts, and we should, particularly as real people are aggrieved and real people are separated from their families. You know, as you and I sit on the phone as of now, if you are Somali who is trying to immigrate to the United States, you’re banned based on your nationality and your religion. Ditto for Yemenis, Libyans, same for others as well.
And so, you know, I mean it doesn’t matter whether you have had a stellar life. It doesn’t matter whether you have had an exemplary history. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a two year-old girl. It just matters what your religion and your country is, and that’s all the Supreme Court has relied on, and I don’t believe that can stand. And so these kind of rulings have to be challenged, and I believe that it needs to be overruled. And in order to overrule this kind of decision, you need another decision, you need another case. And I think we just got to keep up the fight and not relent. I’m committed to it. That’s why I’m running for attorney general of the State of Minnesota, so that we can be on the forefront of protecting people’s rights.
MH: What I find so bizarre is that you mentioned Korematsu, whereby the Supreme Court legalized the internment of Japanese people, and FDR. Ironically, in this decision today, they actually said it was illegal — in passing, they mentioned that they don’t think Korematsu was legal, and they actually overturned Korematsu while producing a decision which many would say is reminiscent of the bigotry behind Korematsu.
MH: What I find so bizarre is how easily they were able to dismiss the bigotry and discrimination at the heart of this ban. Rudy Giuliani went on television last year, on Fox News, and said: Trump called me up, said it’s a Muslim ban, but make it legal. Do it legally. I mean he said it on air, in front of our eyes!
KE: Yes! To the whole world.
But I think the point that you’re making is this: We have a Supreme Court that’s not really about what is the law, what is the precedent, what is the principle. They are a highly partisan, carefully selected group of politicians, really, and that is what we have.
I mean once Mitch McConnell said that, you know, we’re not going to follow the Constitution and allow the president to nominate his Supreme Court Justice, no matter who that person may be, no matter what their qualifications may be, we’re simply not letting this president nominate a Supreme Court justice, then decisions like this were fixed.
I mean, Neil Gorsuch wasn’t selected based on his judicial acumen; he was selected based on his ideology and his fidelity to an ideology.
That’s why he’s there. So you can expect —
MH: Stolen Supreme Court seat many would say, filled with someone based on ideology.
KE: Well, that’s what I would say.
MH: And hugely consequential, Keith. I mean, this is not the only bad decision we’ve seen from the Supreme Court in recent days as they finish up their schedule.
KE: And we might see another bad one tomorrow. We might see a really bad one tomorrow. In fact, I doubt anyone — I have grave doubts whether or not we will see more bad decisions that favor the powerful over the regular people, and that allow the big to roll over the small. These are the kind of decisions that Neil Gorsuch specializes in. He doesn’t need to know what the law and the history and the facts are. He needs to know who’s got the money and the power, and then he knows whose side he’s on, and that is essentially who he is.
MH: Putting aside the politics and the law, speaking as a Muslim American, I’m a British Muslim. I moved here three years ago, but my daughters are Muslim Americans, right? What do you say to family members? What do you say to your friends and your family in the community? How do you feel as a Muslim American today? How do you react to a decision like this, which goes to the heart of your citizenship and your faith?
KE: Well, than you for asking me how I feel. Because I’m doing a lot of feeling right now, and what I say to people is this is a time of faith. This is a time when you have to have faith that if you keep on pushing and stand up for what’s right and telling the truth and reaching out to your fellow Americans, then we will, God willing, prevail. That is how I’m feeling. I’m feeling a certain amount of rejuvenation, actually. I’m feeling a stiffening of my resolve. That’s how I’m feeling.
I’m feeling angry, that’s true; I’m feeling disappointed, that’s true. Because the truth is man, even though my brain told me, “They’re going to make a bad ruling,” my heart kept telling me, “You know, maybe they won’t.”
Well, you know, the bottom line is we’ve got to keep faith and keep on pushing and keep on trying and lifting up the highest ideals of this nation, which I believe are wonderful values that are consistent with my own values, and this is what we have to do.
MH: And on that note, when you talk about the values of the nation and how we push back, there’s been a big debate recently. You saw Sarah Huckabee Sanders asked to leave a restaurant, the Homeland Security Secretary heckled by protesters, and people are complaining in Washington D.C., you know, the pundits in the middle who say: We should be civil — there’s a debate, we should be civil.
When you have a president who starts his administration with white nationalists, who produces bans on, you know, people by religious faith, which is what this is, who calls Mexican rapists, who calls immigrants invaders who are infesting America.
KE: Right. Right.
MH: When you are confronted with a president like that, Keith, you are the deputy head of the DNC or a prominent Democratic member of Congress, some of your colleagues are saying, “Well, you know, we have to be civil, we have to treat everyone with respect.” Others are saying, “You know what, this is a moment in history. You now have a white nationalist presidency, who’s got the blessing of the Supreme Court,” as we saw this morning.
MH: What do you do? Can we stay civil in a time like this?
KE: You know, brother, I think we must stay civil. That doesn’t mean we can’t fight back, we can’t be firm, we can’t protest, litigate and push back, but I think darkness doesn’t drive out darkness. Hate doesn’t drive out hate. And I believe that.
MH: Dr. King.
KE: I know it’s not popular with some people, but that’s how I feel.
MH: But you also agree that we don’t normalize this president. This is not a normal presidency.
KE: Absolutely! No, we can never normalize this president. We could never allow this president to be like, “This is who we are.” This is an ugly throwback to the worst days, and we’re not going back to those bad old days. We will never be dragged back there.
I’m not going to be one of those who say it’s an aberration, because, sadly, there is historical reference. But there are also high ideals that we’ve lived up to. And those are the days that I’m looking forward to now.
MH: How do you think history will judge this Supreme Court verdict?
KE: Very dimly. It’ll be thrown on the dustbin of history, and it’ll be something that we look back on in shame, and the Supreme Court is so fundamentally hypocritical to reject Korematsu, but then affirm it in action; to deny it in words, but to affirm it in action is what they just did. What a mental and emotional gymnastic they just performed. It’s quite remarkable, really.
But this will find the dustbin of history, and it won’t be long. It’s just important for people to keep the faith, keep on pushing, keep voting, keep protesting, keep marching, keep singing, keep reporting. All those things are critical now. Perhaps more than ever.
MH: You say it won’t be long. I hope you’re right, although I’m less optimistic than you.
One last question: What would you say, what’s your message to Americans listening to this, listening to you today on a dark day like this in American history. What is your message to Americans, especially Muslim Americans who feel this very personally? What would you say to someone like my 11-year-old daughter who’s wondering about how she feels, what’s her place in a country like this today, with the Supreme Court ruling like this?
KE: What I say to her is that we love her, that she’s safe, that her family is with her and her community is looking forward to her offering her leadership to this nation.
I say: Go run for student council. Go be a leader in your community. Go offer your leadership, your talent, your skills, because it is you who’s going to lead us forward, not these people who let hate drive them. That’s what I say to your, to your wonderful, blessed young daughter. Because I know she’s a little nervous, but she has all of us around her, and she’s our hope.
MH: Congressman Keith Ellison, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
KE: You bet, buddy. Take care.
MH: That was Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota.
For more on the impact of the travel ban on the ground, inside of Muslim-American, Arab-American, Iranian-American communities who are suffering as a direct result of this ban and now of this Supreme Court ruling, I’m joined now by Debbie Almontaser who is one of the co-founders of the Yemeni American Merchants Association, which burst out of the Yemeni bodega strike against the Muslim ban last February in New York City.
Debbie Almontaser, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed. Let’s just start with the initial reactions: this morning when you heard the news of the Supreme Court ruling upholding this Muslim ban, what was your response?
Debbie Almontaser: My response Mehdi this morning when I heard the decision, I simply felt like someone punched me so hard in the stomach. I could not believe what I was reading.
I, in my heart of hearts, was trying very, very hard to be optimistic and say to myself, you know, the Constitution is on our side, this is a country that was built on the back of immigrants, this is a country that was built on the freedom of religion and expression. But yeah, today’s decision was absolutely devastating because it did not uphold these great values that we hold so close and near and dear to our heart.
MH: And let’s just talk about why it’s such a dark day. There are people like yourself who is a Yemeni-American immigrant came to this country as a child, am I right in saying?
DA: Yes. I came at the age of three.
MH: And you came with your family. You now have a family, a community in New York and beyond. Members of your family, your own children have served in the armed forces and the police, I believe. You know, you have done a lot for this country, your family, the Yemeni-American community. And now Yemen, which is on this banned list, people from your community cannot see members of their own family, am I right in say that, because of this ban?
DA: That is absolutely correct. I can’t even begin to tell you, from 10 o’clock up until this moment, my phone and text messaging has been off the hook with people calling me and saying, “What does this mean?” “Is my daughter going to be able to come?” “Is my wife going to be able to come?”
And, I have to say, this is truly a betrayal to the existence of my family, where my family, we have members of my family — seven who have served in the U.S. Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have family members in the New York Police Department. I have family members who are teachers, you know, civil servants. And, you know, this is truly saying to me and my family, “You don’t belong here,” when, in fact, we have been a part of the American fabric and building this nation.
MH: And your father, who brought you to this country, I believe he passed away. How do you think, and we talked about him before, you and I, in previous conversations, how do you think he would feel today if he were alive today to see the Supreme Court ruling? He came here as an immigrant — to build a life for his family, for his kids, for his community — from Yemen.
DA: My father, today, would be devastated to hear this. When we first came to the United States, his thing was: “You are an American now. You are an American. You’re going to get educated, you’re going to work, you’re going to be a part of this country. You don’t need to speak your language, talk about your culture. You are American.” And I know that if he were here today, he would be absolutely devastated, because this is not the America that welcomed him and gave him an opportunity to raise his children in America.
MH: And just in terms of your work and your activism, you’re one of the co-founders of the Yemeni American Merchants Association, which came out of the big Yemeni-American bodega strike in New York last February where, I think, 1,000 stores were shut down over the course of a day in protest at Trump’s original executive order. What do activists such as yourself, with your activist hat on, where do we go from here? You know, we’ve seen so much protesting, so many examples of people taking to the streets, and yet the Supreme Court comes along and says: This is all fine. This is all legal. Where do you as an activist go from here?
DA: Well, where we go from here is we continue to resist this decision. For example, today, at 6 PM, we are congregating at Foley Square in New York City, where thousands of Yemeni Americans and other impacted countries are will be there, along with our allies and organizers. I say to each and every person listening to this that this is not over.
MH: Debbi, I always admire your passion and your energy and your optimism, but I’m pretty pessimistic to that. I don’t see anything changing anytime soon for sure. The Supreme Court has now ruled on this. Trump continues to stack the judiciary with his judges. A lot of activists might say: How do we keep getting people to take to the streets, because there’s a kind of protest-rally fatigue, isn’t there, at some stage? People say: “We’ve done all this for over a year and a half and Trump keeps winning.”
DA: What I say to them is nothing comes easy. It doesn’t happen overnight. And we’ve seen this historically in various movements. We have to stay strong, we have to stay committed, and we will get through this. And I’m confident that there is a silver lining in all this.
The best and greatest way for us to combat all of this is to make sure that people across this nation are registered to vote, and when it comes to the presidential race, we put this administration out of its misery.
MH: Yeah, I think days like this are another reminder of how foolish those people were, who said there was no difference between Clinton and Trump.
Let me just ask you this as a last question. I asked Keith Ellison the same question. What would you say, what’s your message to a young Muslim-American kid who’s listening to this podcast, who wonders about their place in America, their future in America, in a country where the Supreme Court is willing to uphold a quote-unquote Muslim ban. What’s your message to them?
DA: My message is: Be proud of who you are and where you came from. Stay strong. Do not let this break you. You have people like me and other activists in your community, and outside of your community, who believe in you and believe in your right to exist with respect and dignity in this nation.
MH: Debbie Almontaser, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
DA: Alright. You’re very welcome, Mehdi.
MH: That was Debbie Almontaser. Inspiring words from her. She’s an optimist, so is Keith Ellison, and I do truly hope and pray that their optimism is correct, and my pessimism that I’m feeling right now is incorrect. This is a dark day for U.S. history; it’s a dark day for world history, because the United States is setting all sorts of precedents for other quote-unquote illiberal democracies — banning people from entering the country because of their religion, riling up right-wing bases with such decisions. This will all have consequences both at home and abroad, and I hope we’re able to get through them. I hope there is light at the end of this tunnel.
Talking of the end of tunnels: This is the last Deconstructed of the season! We’re taking a summer break, but we will be back in September. It’s been a 15-week rollercoaster for me since we first launched this podcast with Senator Bernie Sanders back in March. Thank you all for listening, for sharing it with your friends, for leaving such lovely reviews, for giving us thoughtful feedback.
Please stay in touch. If there are guests or topics you’d like to hear about next season, write to us at [email protected] or tweet us using #Deconstructed.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept, and is distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Zach Young. Dina Sayedahmed is our production assistant. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
I’m Mehdi Hasan. While the podcast is on a break, I won’t be resting! You can read my writing and check out my videos at theintercept.com.
Thanks so much, talk to you soon.