WASHINGTON — The White House deepened its condemnation of an Obama administration refugee deal with Australia Thursday, saying President Donald Trump was "unbelievably disappointed" in the agreement.
Asked whether the deal would continue, Trump said, "We'll see what happens." However, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told Australians that the American president has committed to following through with the agreement to allow mostly Muslim refugees to resettle in the United States.
The agreement was a source of friction during a recent phone call between Trump and Turnbull, according to an administration official. The call ended after less than 30 minutes, well earlier than scheduled, though the official disputed reports that Trump hung up on the prime minister. The U.S. official was not authorized to publicly discuss the conversation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Obama administration agreed to resettle refugees from among about 1,600 asylum-seekers, most of whom are on island camps on the Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Australia has refused to accept them and instead pays for them to be housed on the impoverished islands.
The White House suggested Thursday that the agreement would continue, with spokesman Sean Spicer saying any of the refugees who come to the United States would undergo "extreme vetting," but provided no details. He blasted the Obama administration for striking the agreement in the first place, saying the new president was "extremely upset" to have inherited the deal.
Trump, appearing moments later an event with Harley-Davidson executives, said that he has to "respect" actions of the previous administration. "But you can also say, 'Why are we doing this?'" he said.
In an interview with Sydney Radio 2SM, Turnbull assured Australians that the U.S. would honor the agreement despite Trump's latest comments.
"He's been very critical of the deal that President Obama did," Turnbull said. "He clearly wouldn't have done it himself, but we persuaded him to stick with it nonetheless. That was the outcome that we wanted to achieve and that's what I've achieved."
An Australian government official said Turnbull, a multimillionaire former merchant banker who came to politics late in life, much as Trump did, told the president: "I'm a businessman, you're a businessman. A deal is a deal." The official was not authorized to describe the call publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The White House's tough rhetoric and the contentious call between Trump and Turnbull raised the prospect of a rift with Australia, one of America's closest allies and intelligence partners.
Top White House officials tried to clean up the diplomatic mess Thursday, with chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon meeting with Joe Hockey, the Australian ambassador to the U.S. The White House said the officials conveyed Trump's "deep admiration" for the Australian people.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he reached out to the ambassador Thursday to the U.S. to express "unwavering support for the U.S.-Australia alliance." Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said he also spoke with the ambassador to reiterate America's "deep and abiding commitment to Australia."
Details of Trump's call were first reported by The Washington Post, which said the president called the refugee agreement "the worst deal ever" and accused Turnbull of seeking to export the "next Boston bombers" — a reference to brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who were born in Kyrgyzstan. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a U.S. citizen; Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed in a shootout with police several days after the April 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon, had sought citizenship but had not had his application granted.