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Obama says he's 'heartened' by civic engagement in wake of Trump's executive orders

Former President Barack Obama
Saul Loeb | Getty Images
Former President Barack Obama

Former president Barack Obama said he's "heartened" by American civic engagement, following a weekend of spontaneous protests in the wake of President Donald Trump's executive order related to immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.

"Citizens exercising their Constitutional right to assemble, organize and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake," Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said Monday in a written statement.

Lewis referenced Obama's farewell address, in which the outgoing president called on Americans to get involved to demand change. It's not just that every person is created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, but, Obama said, "it's the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that we, the people, through the instrument of our democracy can form a more perfect union."

Over the weekend, demonstrators rallied against Trump's order, which imposed travel restrictions on foreign citizens from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Yemen. Crowds outside of airports shouted, "Let them in!" and cheered when detainees were released.

A federal judge subsequently granted an emergency stay, barring the deportation of people with valid visas who landed in the U.S. amid the uncertainty and chaos of Trump's order. The American Civil Liberties Union and other activist groups filed a class action lawsuit on Saturday, seeking to challenge the president's order, as acrimony widened over the policy and the number of detainees waylaid in transit appeared to swell.

In a Monday press briefing, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said, "It's a shame people were inconvenienced" by the detentions. Spicer also defended the move, by saying the Obama administration previously identified the seven affected countries as in need of further travel restrictions.

Amid criticism from advocacy groups that Trump's order was a "Muslim ban," the president defended his action.

"This is not about religion," Trump said in the statement issued Sunday evening. "This is about terror and keeping our country safe. There are over 40 different countries worldwide that are majority Muslim that are not affected by this order."

The order does "prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality" in Muslim-majority countries. Trump also said in an interview with Christian Broadcasting Network that he would prioritize Christians.

Obama's spokesman didn't specifically condemn or comment on Trump's controversial order, but said the former president "fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion."

In 2015, Obama vehemently denounced suggestions for religious tests to vet refugees.

"That's shameful. That's not American. That's not who we are. We don't have religious tests to our compassion," Obama said then.

— CNBC's Javier David, Jacob Pramuk, Tom DiChristopher and NBC News contributed to this report.