U.S. will honor refugee agreement that Trump called ‘worst deal ever,’ Pence says

Trump had seemed willing to jeopardize relationship with Australia over the “dumb deal.”

Vice President Mike Pence, center, during a state visit to Australia. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft
Vice President Mike Pence, center, during a state visit to Australia. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

The White House will not walk away from an agreement to accept roughly 1,200 refugees and asylum-seekers from a notoriously grim Australian refugee camp, Vice President Mike Pence said, despite President Donald Trump’s angry reluctance to fulfill the pledge made by his predecessor.

The men, women, and children seeking to come to the United States have been stuck in island camps for years after the conservative Australian government relocated them. Conditions in the camps are rough, defined by neglect, privation, and disease, according to human rights observers.

Trump had sought to wriggle out of America’s promise to resettle the refugees, who Australian leaders have refused to permanently accept. But at a joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Saturday, Pence affirmed that Washington will keep its promises to Sydney.

Pence added caveats to the administration’s acceptance of its obligations. Some of the refugees currently stationed in island camps off the Australian coast could still be kept out of the U.S., he indicated, if the administration doesn’t like what it finds after reviewing their backstories.

“Let me make it clear: the United States intends to honor the agreement, subject to the results of the vetting processes that now apply to all refugees considered for admission to the United States of America,” Pence said.

Pence’s comments imply that the Trump administration has added new vetting efforts to the Obama-era agreement. But the deal always required two rounds of interviews for each refugee seeking resettlement. The people in the camps are mostly fleeing Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq. The Australian government, which moved to block refugees from permanently settling there a few years ago, has done its own initial vetting and certified that 80 percent of those in the camps qualify for asylum.

Pence’s diplomatic visit appears partly aimed at putting out the fire Trump lit with Australia in his second week in office.

Angry over Sydney’s insistence that the Obama-era refugee deal stand, Trump hung up on Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in early February just 25 minutes into an hour-long scheduled conversation with the staunch U.S. ally.

Trump reportedly harangued Turnbull that day, decrying the refugee deal as politically harmful to his presidency and calling it “the worst deal ever.” He later said their conversation was “the worst call by far” of any he’d done with foreign leaders and took to Twitter to call the agreement a “dumb deal.”

Pence’s state visit to Sydney came roughly 10 weeks after that tempestuous argument seemed to confirm fears that Trump’s temperament could endanger even the strongest and oldest U.S. alliances.

Pence also met with the leader of an Australian opposition party. A hot microphone near the two could pick up parts of their chat, prompting staff to hustle pool reporters out of the room until the mic could be switched off.

The last thing reporters heard the lawmaker say was that “he’d like to hear VPOTUS views on various issues, naming North Korea specifically,” according to the pool report.