Donald Trump has been accused of “xenophobic scapegoating” after announcing he will order a temporary ban on immigration into the US to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

There were no other details on the timing, scope or legal basis of the president’s proposed executive order and no official policy statement from the White House.

Instead there was a lone tweet issued by Trump at 10.06pm on Monday. Without warning, he wrote: “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy” – a phrase he commonly applies to Covid-19 – “as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”

The post generated instant uncertainty. Similar moves by Trump in the past have triggered mayhem at airports in America and beyond as well as legal challenges. Such an order would be a far-reaching use of executive power from a president who last week claimed he had “total” authority over states’ efforts to reopen their economies.

Trump’s tweet about suspending immigration was curiously timed on a day in which he claimed many areas hardest hit by the virus had “turned the corner” and as he actively foments protests against the lockdown. On Tuesday White House officials offered competing justifications for the measure.

Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, told the Fox News channel: “We’re trying to do everything, the president’s trying to do everything he can to put the health of the American people first during this crisis. So this is one step. It’s not dissimilar to the restrictions on travel from China that he implemented back on January 29 at the very outset of this public health crisis.”

But with more than 22 million people filing for unemployment aid in recent weeks, the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, put the emphasis on jobs: “As President Trump has said, ‘Decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens, especially for African-American and Latino workers.’ At a time when Americans are looking to get back to work, action is necessary.”

Trump’s tweet did not make clear which immigration programmes might be affected. Nearly all visa processing by the state department, including immigrant visas, has been on hold during the pandemic. Asylum claims have also been suspended in effect, with thousands of people being swiftly returned to Mexico without due process, which the UN has described as a violation of international and US law.

The abrupt move provoked fierce criticism from immigration rights groups. Andrea Flores, deputy policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s equality division, said: “Unfortunately, President Trump seems more interested in fanning anti-immigrant flames than in saving lives. We cannot allow President Trump to exploit this pandemic to advance his racism and xenophobia.”

Democrats suggested the president was seeking to distract from his own mishandling of the pandemic. Congressman Don Beyer of Virginia tweeted: “From the beginning Trump has flailed about seeking someone to blame for his own failure. Obama. Governors. China. Speaker Pelosi. People of Asian descent.

“Immigration has nearly stopped and the US has far more cases than any other country. This is just xenophobic scapegoating.”

Congressman Joaquín Castro of Texas, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, added: “This action is not only an attempt to divert attention away from Trump’s failure to stop the spread of the coronavirus and save lives, but an authoritarian-like move to take advantage of a crisis and advance his anti-immigrant agenda. We must come together to reject his division.”

Moe Vela, a former senior adviser on Latino affairs to the then vice-president Joe Biden, said: “He wants to distract again. He castigates and casts blame as he tries to take it away from himself. He shirked his most fundamental responsibility as the president of this nation and that’s to keep us safe. He doesn’t know how to cover up for the fact he was playing golf and holding rallies in February when people were getting sick and dying.”

But an immigration crackdown would be welcomed by Trump’s base and Republican hardliners. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas tweeted: “22 million Americans have lost their jobs in the last month because of the China virus. Let’s help them get back to work before we import more foreigners to compete for their jobs.”

With opinion polls showing declining faith in his coronavirus response, Trump has repeatedly pointed to travel restrictions he imposed on China and Europe as evidence he took pre-emptive action. He is yet to extend those restrictions to other countries now experiencing outbreaks.

The president has also been condemned for using the coronavirus pandemic to push his political agenda, assailing voting rights, undermining federal watchdogs, shredding regulations and signing a bill that handed billions of dollars to corporations while resisting congressional oversight.

The threatened executive order is consistent with his anti-immigrant rhetoric – during the 2016 presidential election he floated a “Muslim ban” – and aggressive policy enforcement that saw parents separated from children when they entered the country illegally.

The US has nearly 800,000 cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and more than 42,000 have died, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

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