WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court on Wednesday will consider whether President Donald Trump can legally restrict entry to the U.S. for travelers from several Muslim majority countries, tackling a central issue of his presidency.
The case traces back to a defining moment in Mr. Trump’s campaign, when he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” That idea evolved through three travel bans of varying character and severity, the latest issued in September 2017.
The ban has become more measured in some respects, as the White House has sought to withstand legal scrutiny, though the current travel prohibitions have no expiration date, a contrast from the temporary nature of the earlier bans.
To prevail, the government may have to persuade the justices that the current order is untainted by religious bias, contrary to the findings of some lower courts. The administration also will contend that the ban would help prevent terrorist attacks.
Clarifying the scope of the president’s power over immigration and national-security policy is a momentous task in itself. But in a matter so closely tied to Mr. Trump’s own instincts and style, the case amounts to something of a personal test for the president, as well as a legal one.
While the dispute involves a number of familiar legal questions involving the interpretation of statutes and constitutional provisions, Mr. Trump’s habit of regularly tweeting and otherwise declaring his opinions has added additional dimensions.
“One is the question of when the executive can free itself from the taint of earlier remarks or earlier actions, because if you pretend there were no campaign promises of a Muslim ban and there was no Version 1.0 of a travel ban, the administration’s position looks a lot better,” said Kermit Roosevelt, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Supreme Court has tread carefully when considering a handful of preliminary matters involving the travel ban and other disputed Trump administration policies, suggesting the justices may be reluctant to pare back Mr. Trump’s authority in ways that could curtail the powers of future presidents.
In lower-court litigation, Justice Department lawyers have had to defend the immigration policy not only from opposing counsel but also from Mr. Trump’s own tweets and comments, which judges have suggested undercut official arguments that the ban is aimed at protecting national security, not discriminating against Muslims. Solicitor General Noel Francisco is likely to face similar questions Wednesday.
In legal filings, Mr. Francisco argues the courts have no business examining the travel ban at all. “Congress has granted the president sweeping power to suspend or restrict entry of aliens abroad,” he writes.
BY JESS BRAVIN AND BRENT KENDALL