Amid mounting calls from Republican leaders -- and some Democrats -- to bar Syrian refugees from states or even coming into the U.S. at all, GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush Tuesday said he opposed banning refugees' arrival, only to walk his answer back hours later.
First, in an interview with Bloomberg Politics, Bush stated that “the answer to this, though, is not to ban people from coming” to the United States.
Then, just hours later, he told reporters in South Carolina: “Yeah, I think [Republican governors are] doing the right thing."
The stunning shift comes as the rest of his party maintains a nearly unanimous position on the issue: Amid evidence that one of the perpetrators of last Friday's Paris terror attacks had slipped into France as part of a flow of Syrian refugees, the flow of Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. must be pushed back.
Virtually all of Bush's GOP primary rivals have taken that position, and Bush's shift in rhetoric is the latest reflection of his campaign coming to grips with a primary electorate that has moved to the right of the former Florida governor, particularly on issues like immigration.
As an experienced policy wonk, the renewed focus on national security after the terror attacks seems primed to give Bush an opportunity to wrest attention from Donald Trump and Ben Carson, both of whom have been leading in polls but have little foreign policy experience. Bush has given several interviews about how he would handle ISIS as commander-in-chief, and he is scheduled to deliver a major foreign policy address Wednesday at the Citadel in South Carolina.
But none of that stopped his stumble on the refugee issue.
Asked by Bloomberg Politics about Republican calls to block refugees, Bush at first separated himself from much of his party by saying he did not oppose President Obama's plan to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to settle in the U.S. in 2016. So far, 29 governors have said they oppose, will refuse or have suspended the resettlement of Syrian refugees into their state -- either permanently or until after a security review of the screening process.
“I think people are legitimately concerned about the efficiency, the competency of the Obama administration as it relates to screening processes. But we have systems in place, we should if there's any kind of concern, we shouldn't allow people in. But I don't think we should eliminate our support for refugees," Bush said. "It's been a noble tradition in our country. The answer to this is not to ban people from coming. The answer is to lead, to resolve the problem in Syria. That's the ultimate answer. And that's my focus.”
Still, hours later, campaign spokesman Tim Miller told reporters that Bush "totally respects" the decisions governors have made for their states, suggesting that his initial comments had referred only to the federal program.
Pressed again on the matter after a campaign event, Bush told reporters that governors barring refugees is "the right thing" if they can't be properly screened.
"I think they're doing the right thing because they haven't gotten any information about what the screening process is," Bush said, adding he supports a proposal by House Speaker Paul Ryan to take a "pause" in admitting more refugees.
Bush's final stance -- that he'd allow Christians, Muslim women and children into the country, and only allow Muslim men to enter the nation if there's a proper screening process -- is still more moderate than some of his rivals' harsh stances. (Gov. Chris Christie said he'd bar even young orphans from entering the country.) But his support for governors' efforts block refugees ignores the shaky legal ground the governors are on. Experts say it's questionable whether states can stop Syrian refugees from being resettled by federal authorities.
The vetting process for allowing refugees into the U.S. takes 18 to 24 months, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Tuesday.
There is a stringent process in place to look at all of these factors and to interview these individuals and to make sure -- and it's part of the reason why it takes so darn long, Toner said.
For his part, Bush said he'd like to see more on the screening process refugees would undergo.
"I'd like to know what their plans are. This is, you know, the so called most transparent administration on recorded history, hasn’t given much information about this and I think they should," he told reporters, despite reminding Bloomberg Politics about that very answer. "I want to see what the proper vetting process to come into our country. I think that’s fair."