The White House on Thursday cranked up criticism of a refugee deal the Obama administration struck last year with Australia, following reports of a tense phone call between the country’s prime minister and President Trump – while suggesting the president may still honor the agreement, with changes.
Trump said he was “unbelievably disappointed” in the deal negotiated in the final days of his predecessor’s presidency.
“I cannot underscore how disappointed he was in the deal that was made,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at a separate briefing, saying his boss thinks the deal was “horrible.”
Spicer also indicated they could still proceed with the admissions – provided the refugees in question undergo what the administration calls “extreme vetting.”
In remarks made after meeting with executives from Harley-Davidson, Trump said the administration would “respect” the agreement but also review it.
He proclaimed his fondness for Australia, adding: “But you can also say, ‘Why are we doing this?’”
The comments follow reports that Trump had a tense call on the subject with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, blasting the deal and cutting the conversation short. As Trump’s top advisers lamented the apparent leak of details from a high-level phone call, other lawmakers voiced concern about the state of the U.S.-Australia alliance.
On Thursday morning, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., reached out to Australia’s U.S. ambassador to reaffirm America’s commitment to the alliance.
“I called Australia’s Ambassador to the United States this morning to express my unwavering support for the U.S.-Australia alliance,” McCain said in a statement.
The deal in question was secretly negotiated last year by the Obama administration, and the broad terms of it became known in November. Under the terms, Australia would resettle Central American refugees, and the U.S. would take up to roughly 1,300 mostly Muslim asylum seekers being held on Pacific island nations.
After his conversation with the Australian leader, Trump took to Twitter to express his anger at the deal.
“Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why?” Trump tweeted. “I will study this dumb deal!”
Ironically, it was Turnbull who earlier on Wednesday pointed to the agreement as a sign of the strength of the relationship between the two nations.
Australia’s immigration policy elicited equal criticism.
Because the migrants in question arrive by boat, the Australian government considers them illegal and unqualified for resettlement. They were sent to camps located on the Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea and were described by Amnesty International last year as “open-air prisons” where migrants suffer abuse and inhumane treatment.
The deal raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill last year.
On Nov. 22, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Secretary of State John Kerry seeking an explanation of why a deal related to individuals being considered for admission under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program was classified.
“The American people have a right to be fully aware of the actions of their government regarding foreign nationals who may be admitted to the United States. American taxpayers not only foot the bill for the majority of the refugee resettlement in the United States, but they bear any consequences regarding the security implications of those admitted to the U.S.,” the senators wrote in a subsequent letter.
The current dispute follows Trump’s executive order a week ago to suspend the U.S. refugee program.