Trump Pushes to Designate Muslim Brotherhood a Terrorist Group

The Trump administration is pushing to issue an order that would designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization, bringing the weight of American sanctions against a storied and influential Islamist political movement with millions of members across the Middle East, according to officials familiar with the matter.

The White House directed national security and diplomatic officials to find a way to place sanctions on the group after a White House visit on April 9 by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, for whom the Brotherhood represents a source of political opposition. In a private meeting without reporters and photographers, Mr. el-Sisi urged Mr. Trump to take that step and join Egypt in branding the movement a terrorist organization.

Such a designation imposes wide-ranging economic and travel sanctions on companies and individuals who interact with the targeted group. The president responded affirmatively to Mr. el-Sisi, saying it would make sense. Some of Mr. Trump’s advisers have interpreted that as a commitment, officials said.

But the proposal has prompted fierce debate within the administration, including at a senior-level meeting of policymakers from various departments convened last week by the White House’s National Security Council, the officials said.

In a statement, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, acknowledged that the administration was working on designating the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists.

“The president has consulted with his national security team and leaders in the region who share his concern, and this designation is working its way through the internal process,” Ms. Sanders said.

John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, support the idea, officials said. But the Pentagon, career national security staff, government lawyers and diplomatic officials have voiced legal and policy objections, and have been scrambling to find a more limited step that would satisfy the White House.

As a matter of law, officials have argued that the criteria for designating a terrorist organization are not a good fit for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is less a coherent body than a loose-knit movement with chapters in different countries that either use that moniker or have strong historical ties to it. Several political parties in places like Tunisia and Jordan consider themselves Muslim Brotherhood or have ties to it, but eschew violent extremism.

As a matter of policy, such a designation could have rippling consequences, including further stressing relations with Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a staunch Brotherhood supporter. It is also unclear what the consequences would be for Americans and American humanitarian organizations with links to the group, and human rights officials have worried that Mr. el-Sisi might use it to justify an even harsher crackdown against his opponents.

Among the alternative ideas raised at the meeting last week were trying to identify and target a terrorist-linked group with ties to the Brotherhood that has not yet been designated or limiting any designation’s scope to the Egyptian branch, officials said.

A former general, Mr. el-Sisi helped lead a coup in 2013 that deposed Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president and a former Brotherhood leader, and has reimposed strongman rule on Egypt. The Egyptian government deemed the Brotherhood a terrorist organization several years ago as part of a brutal crackdown on its supporters, and Mr. el-Sisi repeatedly pressed the Obama administration to follow suit. But the Obama team refused, for both legal and policy reasons.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 in Egypt, and for decades it used violence as a means to pursue its goal of a society governed by Islamic law. It renounced violence in the 1970s and embraced democracy instead, although some offshoots and former members have engaged in terrorism.

The push for sanctions on the Brotherhood is the latest of several significant foreign policy decisions by Mr. Trump that appear to have been heavily influenced by talking to autocratic foreign leaders without first being fully vetted by career government professionals — such as his abrupt choice, since partly reversed, to swiftly pull American troops out of Syria.

The Trump administration had weighed whether to designate both the Muslim Brotherhood and an arm of Iran’s military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as terrorist organizations during its chaotic first weeks in 2017. But the ideas lapsed amid objections from career professionals and the fallout from other capricious early steps, like Mr. Trump’s ban on visitors from several predominantly Muslim countries.

But this spring, the administration abruptly pushed through the terrorist designation for the Revolutionary Guards. Mr. Pompeo, who has the most important voice in the debate besides Mr. Trump’s because the secretary of state controls the list of designated terrorist organizations, announced sanctions on the Iranian military arm on April 8, the day before Mr. el-Sisi visited the White House.

The move against the Iranian military was the first time the United States had interpreted its counterterrorism laws as permitting an entity of a nation-state government to count as terrorists.

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That novel use by the Trump administration of the power Congress has granted the executive branch to make such a determination prompted alarm among American military, intelligence and diplomatic professionals, who worried that the administration was moving forward without thinking through potential consequences and working out policy details to deal with them.

The potential problems included creating a need to grant huge numbers of visa waivers for Iraqi officials who interact with the Iranian military agency; raising the question of whether American officials should start denying visas to members of other countries’ intelligence services that use violence, including Israel, Pakistan and Russia; and risking retaliation against American troops and intelligence officials.