After a report of a contentious call between the two leaders, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Thursday that U.S. President Donald Trump did not hang up on him, and that Trump committed to going forward with an agreement to resettle a group of refugees who were intercepted trying to reach Australia.
The agreement was made during the presidency of Barack Obama. Trump has issued an executive order suspending refugee admissions to the United States, but it included a provision to make exceptions “when admitting the person would enable the United States to conform its conduct to a pre-existing international agreement.”
The Washington Post reported that Trump told Turnbull the agreement is “the worst deal ever,” and that Australia was seeking to export the “next Boston bombers.”
The White House has said that the group of about 1,200 refugees, the bulk of them from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, would have to pass “extreme vetting” before being allowed into the country. Trump further criticized the arrangement in a twitter post late Wednesday.
“Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”
A short time later, Turnbull told Australia’s 2BG radio that Trump had committed to going forward with the agreement.
“He committed to honor a deal done by his predecessor that no doubt he would say he would not have done himself, but he committed to stick tot he deal that President Obama has done,” Turnbull said.
He added that the arrangement always included that refugees would be “assessed rigorously and thoroughly through the Americans’ own security system.”
Turnbull declined to give specifics about any reported animosity in his conversation with Trump, saying his administration does not indulge in public commentary.
“America is our most important ally. We have frank discussions with our ally,” the Australian leader said.
There has been controversy in recent days over whether Trump's directive to suspend refugee admissions constitutes a "ban." Trump and Spicer have both used the term to describe his executive order, but Spicer insisted Tuesday it is not a ban and blamed members of the media for popularizing the usage of the term.
“It's not a Muslim ban. It's not a travel ban,” Spicer told reporters. “It's a vetting system to keep America safe.”
When asked about a tweet Trump posted Monday using the term “ban,” Spicer responded that Trump is “using the words that the media is using,” and pointed to the number of Muslims who are still eligible to enter the U.S.
“It can’t be a ban if you’re letting a million people in. If 325,000 people from another country can come in, that is by nature not a ban. It is extreme vetting,” he said.
Trump, in a tweet early Wednesday, addressed the issue, telling members of the media to “call it what you want.”
The bulk of the refugees involved in the agreement with Australia are from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.
In addition to suspending refugee admissions for 120 days, and indefinitely for Syrian refugees, Trump's order also bans entry for 90 days to anyone from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said Tuesday the listed countries lack the kind of law enforcement and record keeping necessary to convincingly describe the backgrounds of their citizens, and that the U.S. will be working with them and other nations to "tighten up on their procedures."
"I would be less than honest if I told you that some of those countries that are currently on the list may not be taken off the list anytime soon. They're countries that are in various states of collapse, as an example, but, ultimately we'd like to see all those countries taken off the list."
In addition to the refugees being considered under the Australia agreement, the U.S. is also preparing to process a group of 872 refugees who are due to arrive this week.
"The Executive Order calls for refugees that were ready to travel, where it would cause undue hardship, that they should be considered for waivers. We have done that in concert with our Department of State colleagues," said Kevin McAleenan, the acting commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.
Nolan Rappaport, a Washington-based U.S. immigration lawyer and a former immigration counsel for the U.S. Congress, told VOA’s Persian Service that he expects the Trump administration to grant more exemptions from the travel restrictions. “Trump can waive these travel bans both for refugees and for people from the seven countries on a case-by-case basis,” Rappaport said. “And if he had done it properly, taking more time with it, he could have set up some mechanism for issuing those waivers before he imposed the ban. As it is now, the public doesn’t know much about these waivers – many people don’t know they exist and how you get one, but they’ve already started giving them.”
Kelly also reiterated the Trump administration's defense that the immigration order, which includes seven Muslim-majority nations, is "not a ban on Muslims." He said religious liberty is one of the nation's most fundamental values.
U.S. Representative André Carson, a Democrat from the midwestern state of Indiana, told VOA's Deewa service the order plays into the recruitment narratives used by militant groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaida, and also sends the message to the seven countries that the U.S. does not trust them.
"I think it inflames Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment. I think it stokes fears in those who see Muslims as being other, and I think it's un-American and un-patriotic," Carson said.
On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the entry ban went against "all international principles and commitments," and also contradicted what he said were longstanding claims that the U.S. government opposed the Iranian government, but not its people.
"The basis of this wrong action is illegitimate discrimination. They would always say 'we observe human rights.' This is a violation of human rights," Rouhani said.
Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told VOA's Persian service the order is likely to cause more problems than it seeks to solve.
"I have nothing against trying to ensure that our immigration system is secure by doing a review of our systems to ensure that they are adequately screening people and are sufficiently connected to the databases and the intelligence gathering that we need to make smart decisions," Johnson said. "But the notion that we would pass sweeping bans that look and feel a lot like they are focused more on religion and country of origin than they are on people's threat to the U.S. seems to me to be a terrible waste of resources and a completely wrong way to go."
Border security was a major part of Trump's campaign message. In addition to signing the entry ban order, he has also ordered the extension of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
He frequently touted to his supporters his endorsement by the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents the nation's border patrol agents.
McAleenan announced in a memo Tuesday the appointment of career border patrol official Ronald Vitiello as the new chief of U.S. Border Patrol. Vitiello had the support of the agents' union.
Hooman Bakhtiar of VOA’s Persian Service contributed to this report.