Trump travel ban: Emails reveal Australian Embassy’s search for clarity amid global chaos and confusion

Australian Embassy correspondence about Donald Trump’s controversial attempts to ban Muslims entering the US have been released for the first time following a Freedom of Information request by this blog.

Fifty pages of emails and diplomatic cables from January and February this year reveal how diplomats were forced to grapple for clarification about the changes amid confusion about what it meant for Australian travellers.

The documents are heavily redacted to remove the sensitive material, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) citing possible damage to future US-Australia relations if the correspondence was published in full.

What the correspondence says

On 24 January, US media broke the story that Trump would be proceeding with his election pledge to ban travellers from a string of predominantly Muslim countries. Australian Embassy staff were soon considering the implications of the new rules, but conceded it “might take a while until we have all the details”.

Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) on the changes a few days later on Friday 27 January, briefly bringing the ‘Muslim travel ban’ into law before it was subsequently blocked by US judges.

A diplomatic cable sent that night from the Australian Embassy in Washington to Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said it is “unclear how the EO will be interpreted and operationalised” but it may have “visa implications” for Australians with dual nationality from the affected countries.

Trump ban - first cable

Efforts were soon underway by Embassy staff and the Australian Government to clarify the new rules and their impact on Australia.

On Monday 30 January, an email from Brett Hackett, First Assistant Secretary to the Americas, told colleagues that “The Canadians appear to have been exempted” from the ban.

Later that day, the Embassy noted that the Australian Prime Minister had told media that Australians with dual nationality would be exempt from the ban and suggested an urgent update of DFAT travel advice.

Trump ban - PM statementOne briefing note contained within the correspondence also touches on Australia’s immigration deal with the US regarding asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island, saying it “remains in place” and is unaffected by the new policies.

Trump ban - immigration deal

“No sign of [Trump] backing down”

A diplomatic cable on 30 January summarised the political fallout from the ban, saying: “The EO has prompted widespread criticism, protests and legal action…amid confusion over what the measures mean.”

“Despite criticism, the Trump administration has shown no sign of backing down on the core substance of the EO.”

Trump ban - no backing down

A document distributed by diplomatic staff on 1 February contains ‘talking points’ covering Australia’s official view of Trump’s travel ban, saying “We respect the right of all countries to set their own immigration policies and undertake the assessment processes they deem necessary”.

Trump ban - view on the EO

However a later diplomatic cable, sent on 2 February, admits the new law is the US President’s most divisive. “Trump’s EO on immigration has been the most controversial,” the document says, “and is facing multiple court challenges in multiple US jurisdictions”.

Trump ban - most controversial

See the full set of emails and diplomatic cables

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