- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 2, 2017

President Trump defended his blunt talk with world leaders Thursday as a necessary change in American leadership to protect the U.S. from dangerous illegal immigrants, while senior lawmakers in both parties scrambled to minimize the potential diplomatic fallout, and one top Democrat even called on the president to apologize to allies.

Addressing reports that he had an angry phone call with Australia’s prime minister about refugees, Mr. Trump said that he respects the longtime ally of the U.S. but felt he had to raise questions about then-President Obama’s decision to accept more than 1,000 “illegal immigrants” from the country.

“I love Australia as a country, but we had a problem,” Mr. Trump said during a meeting at the White House. “For whatever reason, President Obama said we’d take probably well over 1,000 illegal immigrants who were in prisons and take them into this country. I just said ‘Why?’”

During the call Saturday, Mr. Trump reportedly described the refugee agreement as “the worst deal ever” and accused Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of trying to send to America the “next Boston bombers,” a reference to Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, two Muslim immigrants who carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Even as Mr. Trump was delivering tough talk to allies, his administration announced Thursday it was loosening some economic sanctions on Russia, specifically allowing cybersecurity sales to the Russian Federal Security Service at the center of charges of hacking into the U.S. election system.

The White House pushed back at reports that the sanctions were being rolled back, describing the move by the Treasury Department as a “regular course of action” and was begun, in this case, under the Obama administration.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that reviews of financial sanctions after implementation are standard operating procedure for every administration.

“It’s a fairly common practice after sanctions are put in place to go back and look for carveouts,” he said.

Sanctions against Russia, including financial, economic and targeted travel restrictions, were imposed in response to the country’s annexation of Crimea and interference in eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Trump’s dealings with the former Cold War foe became a flash point after U.S. intelligence officials blamed Russia for email hacks during the presidential campaign that hurt Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and therefore benefited Mr. Trump. The president spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone for the first time Saturday.

While his phone call with the Russian leader was highly anticipated, it was Mr. Trump’s conversation with the Australian prime minister that delivered short-term shock waves, with Mr. Obama’s holdover agreement on refugees at the center of contention.

Mr. Obama agreed to accept anywhere from 1,600 to 3,000 predominantly Muslim refugees, who are seeking asylum and have been held in resettlement camps on islands in the South Pacific, after Australia refused to admit them.

Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that he wanted to “study this dumb deal.”

“We’ll see what happens,” Mr. Trump said on Thursday. When the “previous administration does something, you have to respect that. But you can also say why are we doing this. We have wonderful allies, and we’re going to keep it that way. But we need to be treated fairly also.”

Mr. Spicer said the president had “a very cordial conversation” with Mr. Turnbull in which they engaged in “an extensive discussion” of the refugee deal.

“The president is unbelievably disappointed in the previous administration’s deal that was made and how poorly it was crafted and the threat to national security,” Mr. Spicer said.

He said “out of respect” for Mr. Turnbull, Mr. Trump will study the situation with an eye toward allowing the deal “to move forward under the conditions that have been set that there will be extreme vetting on every single one of those individuals.”

Mr. Trump also had a blunt talk last week with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, with a transcript describing Mr. Trump as having offered to help Mexico with its “handling” of “tough hombres.” Mr. Pena Nieto has since denied that Mr. Trump offered, much less threatened, to send troops to help with that country’s security problems.

In an unusual move, at least two lawmakers said Thursday that they called Australia’s ambassador to the U.S., John Hockey, to reassure him about America’s enduring friendship with Australia.

Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, both expressed support for the alliance.

Mr. Hoyer called on the president to apologize to Mr. Turnbull and to Mr. Pena Nieto for his “childish behavior, which embarrasses our country and hinders America’s ability to lead in the world.”

“These reports only add to a picture of an administration deeply incompetent on matters of foreign policy and national security, exacerbating the fears many Americans now have for our nation’s safety in the wake of the dangerous Muslim ban that plays into the hands of ISIS,” Mr. Hoyer said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

“Australia and Mexico are both key partners with whom we have abundant trade, maintain important people-to-people ties and partner on a host of international efforts, including the war on drugs and limiting the growing influence of China in the Pacific. President Trump needs to recognize the importance of our alliances and foreign partnerships to our security and to our economic strength — things he claims to be his top priorities, but he has consistently undermined both,” Mr. Hoyer said.

Mr. McCain noted Australia’s cooperation with the U.S. military.

“This deepening cooperation is a reminder that from maintaining security and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region to combatting radical Islamist terrorism, the U.S.-Australia relationship is more important than ever,” Mr. McCain said. “I asked Ambassador Hockey to convey to the people of Australia that their American brothers and sisters value our historic alliance, honor the sacrifice of the Australians who have served and are serving by our side, and remain committed to the safer, freer and better world that Australia does far more than its fair share to protect and promote.”

At the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Mr. Trump said that his “tough” phone calls with world leaders reflect his commitment to stop other nations from taking advantage of the U.S. and threatening America’s security.

“The world is in trouble, but we’re going to straighten it out,” Mr. Trump said. “When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. We have to be tough. We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually. It’s not going to happen anymore.”

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