President Donald Trump's controversial immigration order faced intense scrutiny on Tuesday as a court of appeals grilled his administration on whether the travel ban unconstitutionally discriminates against Muslims and questioned the arguments that the curbs were motivated by national security concerns.
Asserting that President Trump was within his constitutional rights and obligations to sign the executive order that temporarily bans immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, the Justice Department urged court of appeals to reinstate the travel ban - put on hold by the courts last week.
During the hour-long hearing, conducted by phone, before a three-judge panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, Justice Department lawyer August Flentje said in signing the executive order Trump struck a balance between national security and the practice of allowing people to enter the country.
"The President struck that balance, and the district court's order has upset that balance. This is a traditional national security judgement that is assigned to the political branches and the president, and the court's order immediately altered that," Flentje said in the hearing which was telecast live by a number of television news channels.
The lawyer urged the San Francisco court to remove the halt on the executive order by a court in Seattle.
"The district court's decision overrides the President's national security judgment about the level of risk and we've been talking about the level of risk that's acceptable," he said.
Flentje's assertion led to a series of rapidfire exchanges with all three judges pressing him to explain the limits of his position.
The three-judge panel asked the government lawyer whether the Trump administration's national security argument was backed by evidence that people from the seven countries posed a danger.
"Has the government pointed to any evidence connecting these countries with terrorism?" asked Judge Friedland.
"Are you arguing then that the President's decision in that regard is unreviewable (by a court)?" he asked another time.
Another judge Willian Canby asked if the President could simply say the US will not admit Muslims into country.
"Could he do that? Would anyone be able to challenge that?" he asked.
"That's not the order. This is a far cry from that situation," Flentje replied. But he said that a US citizen with a connection to someone seeking entry might be able to challenge the executive order if that were the case.
The Court of Appeals is expected to give its verdict soon. The case is likely to hit the Supreme Court in coming days.
President Trump's controversial executive order barred entry to all refugees for 120 days, and to travellers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days, triggering chaos at US airports and worldwide condemnation (See: Trump suspends all refugee admissions; to favour Christians).