As frustration over the immigrant travel ban mounts, lawmakers have begun to shift the focus of their complaints from President Trump to his top military adviser, Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Members of Congress have gone from invoking Mattis' name in requests to the White House to appealing to him directly on the matter, asking for his intervention in clarifying or overturning the controversial order.

The travel ban, signed by Trump at the Pentagon last Friday, includes a 90-day halt on any travel into the United States by citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, and a 120-day suspension of the U.S. refugee program.

White House officials have bristled at accusations of xenophobia and religious discrimination related to the ban, insisting the move is a carefully calculated review of critical security checks for travelers from unstable countries.

Veterans groups have criticized the move for not including exceptions for Iraqi translators and other foreign nationals who provided security assistance in the recent wars.

On Tuesday, officials from the Department of Homeland Security said translators and interpreters who've worked with U.S. forces in the past will be considered for waivers to the ban, and current Special Immigrant Visa holders will be allowed to enter the United States.

But later in the day, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., sent a letter to Mattis urging him to petition the president to more carefully carve out exceptions for all foreign nationals who assisted U.S. troops in the past.

"This situation is unacceptable, and we fear the United States will pay significant moral and strategic costs if it continues, particularly in terms of our ability to obtain necessary local support for U.S. military missions abroad," the group wrote.

Illinois Democrat Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who served under Mattis in Iraq, went even further, calling for Matis to demand a full repeal of the travel order.

"Now is not the time to follow orders without question or hesitation," she wrote in a letter to Mattis. "DOD needs its civilian leadership to defend the agency’s workforce, values and mission."

Mattis has ordered Pentagon officials to compile a list of potential foreigners to be considered for waivers, but so far those names only include Iraqi citizens. White House officials have indicated those individuals will still be carefully vetted, beyond the security processes already in place.

Critics say that could create an unnecessary level of burden for many U.S. allies in danger.

"This decision to not exempt the entire (Special Immigrant Visa) program from the executive order is unnecessary since it already includes the extreme vetting processes that the president has called for," said Matt Zeller, founder of of the advocacy group No One Left Behind. "It is putting at risk the lives of some of America’s strongest allies."

Since his nomination was first made official, members of Congress and defense experts have made no secret that they view Mattis as a check on Trump’s national security plan.

Whether he can, or even if it is his job to do so, is up for debate, said Mark Cancian, a defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has previously worked with Mattis.

"It’s not the role of any cabinet secretary to manage the president," he said. "The president is in charge, everyone else is expendable, except arguably the first lady. So ultimately, Trump will be making these decisions."

But Cancian noted that Mattis has already publicly made clear he disagrees with Trump on some issues, including the use of torture.

"And Trump seems to be comfortable with that," he said. "He has a Cabinet, many of whom have disagreed with his statements during their confirmation hearings, and Trump has said he’s good with that."

Reporter Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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