Jeb Bush Struggles to Clarify Response to Syrian Refugee Backlash

Gov. Jeb Bush cheers with supporters after filing papers to be on the nation's earliest presidential primary ballot, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, in Concord, N.H.

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Gov. Jeb Bush cheers with supporters after filing papers to be on the nation's earliest presidential primary ballot, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, in Concord, N.H.

In a week meant to burnish his national security credentials, the GOP candidate calls for “added measures” to the vetting process but says he doesn’t know what that process is.

CONCORD, N.H.— Jeb Bush, who this week laid out a muscular national-security strategy, continued to struggle on Thursday to clarify his position on the politically charged issue of Syrian refugees.

He defended his call for U.S. authorities to focus on Christians — “They’re not Islamic terrorists” — but then acknowledged that U.S. law already takes religion into account and added that all refugees should go through the same screening process. He also conceded that he doesn’t know exactly what that that process entails, but still called for “added measures.”

Perhaps his clearest statement was a declaration that U.S. resettlement of Syrian refugees should be put on hold.

“I do believe that we should be supportive of refugees, but I think we have to push the pause button right now until the administration can convince the governors,” he said at the New Hampshire State House Thursday afternoon after he filed to participate in the state’s Republican primary election.

Bush noted that both Democrats and Republicans have recently expressed concerns about Syrian refugees. The first Democratic governor to suggest a pause was New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is running for U.S. Senate in 2016 against Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the House passed the “American SAFE Act” by a veto-proof majority of 289 — including 47 Democrats — to 137. Democratic senators have vowed to block the bill, which critics say would stop the U.S. from taking in refugees entirely, and the White House said it would veto the measure.

Bush said they should be concerned about Syrians. “’Cause unlike other refugees that have come, you have the possibility at least of terrorists organizing to go after our way of life and attack us and to kill people that could be embedded in refugees.”

But then he seemed to walk that back: “I think our refugee system just needs to be explained to people so that there is great assurances that won’t happen.”

Asked to clarify whether he thinks the screening process needs to be changed or merely explained, he offered, “I think it should — I don’t know what the exact process is, but I do think with this new threat there should be added measures to make sure that, that that people — that we don’t see what happened in France.”

One thing he was sure of was the cause of the crisis. “The solution to the Syrian refugee problem is the one President Obama refuses to deal with … red lines and overcommitment and no action created a caliphate the size of Indiana and creates the brutality of the Assad regime that has forced people to leave,” he said.

Related: Syrian Refugees Caught Between Political Rhetoric and Reality After Paris

Just the day before, Bush had offered a plan of his own, laying out his national security strategy post-Paris at The Citadel in South Carolina. Campaign officials said the speech had been reoriented in the wake of the attacks to broaden its scope from “rebuild the military” to advance a policy for defeating the Islamic State and winning the wider “war on terror.” Like others in the 2016 race, Team Bush are calculating that the recent spate of terrorist attacks reminds the party establishment that Donald Trump and Ben Carson lack political and foreign-policy experience.

Bush said Thursday he would ask his military commanders to give him options for a strategy against ISIS, because “that’s what presidents do.” President Obama has done the same, but Bush said he wouldn’t “prejudge” or “put conditions” on the strategy.

“I wouldn’t say, ‘Well, no, we can’t have civilian casualties.’ It’s impossible to wage war with your hands tied behind your back,” he said.

In his Wednesday address, he called for more ground troops, “based on conversations I’ve had with commanders,” but declined Thursday to say how many.

“I can’t tell you that,” he said; presidents “don’t try to micromanage the military. They empower the military to come up with the best strategy, so I don’t know.”

Yet the grassroots wing of the party critical to winning the nomination has also largely rejected Bush’s embrace of his brother President George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” Jeb, whose wife is Mexican and his family Mexican-American, has taken a softer tack on immigration than much of the Republican field, calling illegal immigration “an act of love.” His reaction to the refugee crisis has also drawn from this philosophy.

Earlier this week, Bush seemed closer to fellow Republican candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, who said Sunday that Syrian Muslims should be barred. “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror,” Cruz said.

But since then, Bush has seemed to back off a focus on Christians to focus more on Obama. At an earlier event in New Hampshire on Thursday morning, he cautioned against “going overboard,” noting the U.S. processes for clearing refugees are “much more extensive” than Europe’s. He referenced his time as Florida governor dealing with Haitian refugees, saying, “There’s a way to find common ground.”

“I don’t think we should overreact, but I think we need to be reality-based here,” he said.

“You know, I think a three-year-old orphan is not a terrorist … I think there’s duty and responsibility to create a clear understanding of what the screening process is and that we have a duty to take care of people.”

But that tone contrasted his later remarks at the State House, indicating he’s still a bit off balance. “Everybody should go through the same clearing process,” he said, “but I can tell you that persecuted Christian families, uprooted in the community, whether in Iraq or Syria, with family members beheaded because of their faith, they’re not Islamic terrorists.”

After trailing off on the “boots on the ground” question, Bush came back strongly, saying: “Here’s what I do know: the U.S. has to lead.”

“We can’t do this leading from behind as the president has suggested, we can’t do it as Hillary Clinton has suggested, up to today at least, that it isn’t our fight,” he said. “It is our fight. It’s a fight for Western civilization, for freedom and values, that I get to show up and file papers to run for president of the U.S., the greatest country on the face of the Earth.”

On Thursday night at a town hall at a New Hampshire senior center, a boy took the microphone and asked Bush: “Is the U.S. gonna stop all Islams from coming to the US?” 

All Muslims?” Bush gently corrected. “Well that’s the big debate right now. First there oughta be a pause,” he said, criticizing the president and noting the Islamic State’s persecution of Christians. Yet he finished, “But my God, we’ve had history where we’ve felt bad afterword … internment camps … we need to be cautious as we go through this not to get to a point where our emotions overtake our brain.”

This story has been updated.

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