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People protest against President Donald Trump as they gather at the entrance to the Mar-a-Lago Resort where he is staying for the weekend on Feb. 4, 2017 in Palm Beach, Florida.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Donald Trump is fighting to save one of his signature policies – closing U.S. borders to immigrants and travellers from seven majority-Muslim countries – in a court battle that represents the most concrete challenge so far to the President's agenda.

A federal judge on Friday blocked Mr. Trump's week-old executive order and an appeals court Sunday turned down the government's request to immediately reinstate it nationwide. The administration's lawyers will pick up the fight on Monday, setting the stage for a protracted legal battle that could reach all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The fight pits Mr. Trump against state governments – two jurisdictions, Washington and Minnesota, brought the court case – as well as some of the country's most prominent corporations, including Amazon.com, which have publicly slammed the executive order and backed the court challenge.

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Mr. Trump, who was working out of his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, even took on the judge in Friday's decision himself, deriding jurist James Robart as a "so-called judge" and warning that he was endangering America.

"The judge opens up our country to potential terrorists and others that do not have our best interests at heart," the President tweeted. "Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!"

The attacks on the judiciary are extraordinary by the standards of the presidency: Mr. Trump's predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both suffered court defeats on signature policies such as Guantanamo Bay detentions and Medicaid expansions, but neither singled out the judges involved.

Vice-President Mike Pence said the government was going to keep fighting.

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"We're very confident that we're going to prevail. We'll accomplish the stay and we'll win the case on the merits," he said on CNN Sunday. "The American people know that the threats that we face are real."

He also pushed back against criticism that his boss crossed a line by attacking judges.

"The President of the United States has every right to criticize the other two branches of government, and we have a long tradition of that in this country," Mr. Pence said. "I think people find it very refreshing that they not only understand this President's mind but they understand how he feels about things," he added.

Mr. Trump also drew fire for an interview, aired Sunday on Fox shortly before the Super Bowl, in which he reaffirmed his respect for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I do respect him," Mr. Trump told host Bill O'Reilly. "It's a lot better to get along with Russia than not. And if Russia helps us in the fight against [the Islamic State] … that's a good thing."

"He's a killer, though," Mr. O'Reilly said. "Putin's a killer."

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"A lot of killers. We've got a lot of killers," Mr. Trump responded. "What – you think our country is so innocent?"

Mr. Trump also repeated his assertion that millions of illegal immigrants voted in November's presidential election – for which he has never offered any proof – and pledged to set up a commission headed by Mr. Pence to investigate.

Mr. Trump's own party was quick to distance itself from the President's comments. In a CNN interview Sunday, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described Mr. Putin as "a thug" who did not win a credible democratic election, and said there was "no equivalency" between the Russian President's tactics and those of the United States.

He also warned that Mr. Trump should not have attacked Judge Robart. "It is best not to single out judges," he said.

Mr. McConnell conceded that critics of the Trump order may have a point that the directive has a religious component: "There's a fine line here between proper vetting and interfering with the kind of travel or suggesting some kind of religious test," he said.

Washington and Minnesota argue that the directive is unconstitutional because it discriminates based on religion and that the states would be hurt by it, because they could not bring in people who might contribute to their economies and pay taxes, or international students and professors to attend and teach at their universities.

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The administration appealed Judge Robart's ruling, and asked that it be immediately lifted while the case is heard. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco decided early Sunday to leave the ruling in place while it hears the appeal; the court asked both sides to file further briefs by Monday.

In the meantime, U.S. border guards are following Judge Robart's order and allowing immigrants and travellers from the seven countries, and refugees, into the U.S.

Canadian airlines Air Canada, WestJet and Porter confirmed over the weekend that they would resume boarding people previously blocked on their flights.

Travellers from the seven countries raced to get through the window opened by Judge Robart's ruling.

The Sharef family, from Erbil, Iraq, made it to the U.S. Sunday, after getting stopped the previous week trying to board a flight from Cairo.

"We are very happy to be here. It was a long time to get here – a lot to get here," said Fuad Sharef, a former subcontractor for a U.S. Development agency, at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

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Mr. Sharef, his wife and three children planned to settle in Tennessee.

The legal battle over the Trump order could take a year or more to play out, given the high stakes and the multiple courts involved.

First, the appeals court will have to decide whether to uphold or dismiss the temporary restraining order. Then, the case will go back to the lower court to hear the states' full case for an injunction. After that, the losing side can take it back to the appeal court. Once a final decision is reached there, either side can appeal to the Supreme Court.

William Stock, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said that, based on previous court cases involving Mr. Obama's executive orders, it was most likely that the appeals court would uphold the temporary restraining order and send the case back to the lower court.

He estimated the entire legal drama could take a year to reach the Supreme Court.

Mr. Trump's opponents vowed to press their case as far as possible.

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"The President is not a dictator," Senator Diane Feinstein told Fox Sunday. "I have no doubt that it will go to the Supreme Court and probably some judgment will be made whether this President has exceeded his authority or not."

Mr. Trump's lawyers argue that the President is perfectly within his rights to bar people from entering the U.S. The country's immigration law gives a president powers to exclude specific groups of people if he believes they would be detrimental to the country. They accused the court of "second-guessing" the President on national security.

With reports from Reuters

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