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Ahead of landmark travel ban hearing, Trump's education pick squeezes in by the skin of her teeth

The US Homeland Security Department said this afternoon that the controversial travel ban won’t be extended to other countries.

Senate Trump Cabinet Betsy De Vos Source: Carolyn Kaster

AHEAD OF A hugely important federal court hearing regarding his travel ban tonight, Donald Trump can at least take solace in the fact his cabinet pick for education secretary has finally, and very barely, been confirmed.

Betsy De Vos, a billionaire and hugely controversial choice to front the Trump Administration’s education department, was confirmed by an unprecedented casting vote by Vice President Mike Pence after the US Senate was left deadlocked at 50:50 following the vote.

Two Republican senators had broken ranks to vote against De Vos, who, bucking precedent, had chosen to remain as Trump’s candidate despite broad hostility towards her nomination being seen in the Senate.

“The Senate being equally divided, the vice president votes in the affirmative, and the nomination is confirmed,” Pence said when casting his vote.

While Vice Presidents have cast deciding votes on issues in the past, doing so for a Cabinet pick is almost unprecedented.

It was some good news for the Trump administration, which earlier ramped up the rhetoric over the threat of jihadist attacks, accusing US courts and the media of downplaying the danger, hours before a key hearing on the travel ban decreed by the president in the name of national security.

Hosting a group of American sheriffs at the White House, Trump hammered home the rationale for his executive order closing US borders to refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations: it is “common sense”, he said.

“It is very important for the country,” he said of the ban, which barred entry to all refugees for 120 days, and to travellers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days.

Trump acknowledged that the legal showdown touched off last Friday when a federal judge suspended the measure nationwide, may well end up before the Supreme Court — while voicing hope it would not come to that.

The case currently rests with a federal court of appeals in San Francisco which has set a telephone hearing for 11pm Irish time this evening.

Meanwhile, this afternoon the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security John Kelly confirmed that the travel ban as it stands will not be extended beyond the seven countries it currently applies to.

No fatality has been inflicted on any American, on American soil, by any citizen of those seven countries in the last 30 years.

With his most emblematic measure to date facing a wall of judicial opposition – challenged in a lawsuit backed by corporate giants, rights groups and 16 US states – Trump reverted to a now-familiar strategy of lashing out at the media.

Yesterday he accused “dishonest” news outfits of deliberately downplaying the terror threat that his administration cites to justify its ban, saying they purposefully failed to report on past jihadist atrocities.

The White House later distributed a list of 78 attacks it said were “executed or inspired by” the Islamic State group, saying most “have not received the media attention they deserved.”

The list includes numerous atrocities that dominated global headlines for days – from the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015 to the Nice truck-attack of 14 June 2016 or the San Bernardino mass shooting in California in December 2015.

“I understand the total dishonesty of the media, better than anybody and I let people know it,” Trump declared today.

‘So-called judge’

The media has not been Trump’s only target: He has also hit out at the federal judge responsible for freezing his immigration order, allowing banned travellers to start trickling back into the country.

After dismissing James Robart at the weekend as a “so-called” judge – a slur that drew criticism from inside his own Republican camp – Trump sought to pin blame on the courts for potential future attacks on US soil.

“Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!” he tweeted last weekend.

In a filing to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, the Justice Department called for the ban to be reinstated, arguing that the executive order is “a lawful exercise of the president’s authority over the entry of aliens into the United States and the admission of refugees.”

More than 120 Silicon Valley giants led by Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter have meanwhile joined the lawsuit against the ban, arguing that it threatens their ability to attract crucial foreign talent and investment to the United States.

If the San Francisco ruling upholds the ban’s suspension, the high-stakes legal battle will move to the Supreme Court, which would need to weigh in by a majority of five on the eight-seat bench to overturn the appeal court ruling.

That scenario is far from guaranteed with the Supreme Court currently evenly split between four conservative and four liberal justices.

Trump’s controversial immigration order – which initially appeared to enjoy widespread support – is now opposed by a majority of Americans: The split is 53% – 47% according to a CNN poll, 51% – 45% according to a CBS poll.

The Republican president has dismissed the polls as lies.

“Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election,” he tweeted yesterday. “Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.”

Meanwhile the travel ban continued to fuel international criticism of the incoming US leader.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lashed out at Trump in a speech to military officers in Tehran.

“We are thankful to this gentleman… he showed the real face of America,” Khamenei said.

What we have said for more than 30 years – that there is political, economic, moral and social corruption in the ruling system of the US – this gentleman came and brought it out into the open in the election and after the election.

Additional reporting Cianan Brennan

© – AFP, 2017 

Read: White House accuses media of ‘under reporting’ terror attacks

Read: Assad says defending Syria is more important than UN action against him

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