U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions today defended his recent comments about Hawaii that have been criticized by many as offensive or, at best, insensitive.
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His reference this week to the state as “an island in the Pacific” when discussing the judge who blocked President Trump’s revised travel ban was not meant as criticism of the “judge or the island,” he told CNN today.
When asked whether he wished he had phrased his words differently, Sessions said, “Well, I don’t know that I said anything that I would want to phrase differently. Ah, no.”
The controversy started Tuesday when Sessions called into conservative radio host Mark Levin’s show to say, “I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president from the United States what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power.”
Sessions was referring to U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson, who in March issued a nationwide restraining order on President Trump’s revised executive order that calls for suspending the entire refugee program for 120 days and halting immigration from six countries in the Middle East and Africa for 90 days.
Sessions’ comments prompted backlash from Hawaii’s senators and one of its representatives who are all Democrats.
“The suggestion that being from Hawaii somehow disqualifies Judge Watson from performing his Constitutional duty is dangerous, ignorant, and prejudiced," Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said in a statement Thursday. "I am frankly dumbfounded that our nation’s top lawyer would attack our independent judiciary. But we shouldn’t be surprised. This is just the latest in the Trump Administration’s attacks against the very tenets of our Constitution and democracy.”
The other Democratic senator representing Hawaii, Brian Schatz, also tweeted Thursday, “Mr. Attorney General: You voted for that judge.” As a Republican U.S. senator representing Alabama, Sessions did indeed vote “yea” on Watson’s confirmation. Watson was confirmed 94-0 on April 18, 2013, after been nominated by President Obama.
Referring to the part of Hawaii where Watson issued the order from, Schatz added, “And that island is called Oahu. It's my home. Have some respect.”
Mr. Attorney General: You voted for that judge. And that island is called Oahu. It's my home. Have some respect. https://t.co/sW9z3vqBqG— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) April 20, 2017
State of Hawaii has many islands, not one island. We have around 1.5 m people. Island of Hawaii has 186,000 people. Please use the google. https://t.co/aoZewx7jzT— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) April 20, 2017
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, tweeted that Sessions’ comments are "another reason Sessions should step down."
In responding to the criticism, a spokesman from the Department of Justice said in a statement that “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 statement continued.
The attorney general himself responded to the backlash today during the interview with CNN.
“We're going to defend the president’s order,” Sessions said. “We believe it's constitutional. We believe there is specific statutory authority for everything in that order that he did and he has a right to do and protect this country.”
In an op-ed for CNN, Sen. Hirono wrote that, “In spite of the Justice Department's attempt to walk back the attorney general's comments, his words reflect this administration's discriminatory attitude.”
Sen. Schatz also seemed to be unsatisfied with the Department of Justice’s statement.
"Try: 'I'm sorry. That was offensive. I disagree with the ruling, but I respect the judiciary and shouldn't have taken such a cheap shot,'" Schatz tweeted.
Try: "I'm sorry. That was offensive. I disagree with the ruling, but I respect the judiciary and shouldn't have taken such a cheap shot." https://t.co/aoZewx7jzT— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) April 20, 2017
In his interview on the “Mark Levin Show,” Sessions also said that the “very, very liberal 9th circuit,” which includes Hawaii, -has been “hostile to the order.”
“I think our president - having seen some of these really interpretations of the executive orders that he’s put out - I think he’s more understanding now that we need judges who follow the law, not make law,” Sessions said.
“Judges don't get to psychoanalyze the president and see if the law, the order he’s issued is lawful. It’s either lawful or it’s not.”
ABC News' Ali Rogin contributed to this report.