Full Episode: How has the Paris attack shifted the U.S. fight against ISIS, refugee policy and the 2016 campaign?

Nov. 20, 2015 AT 9:16 p.m. EST

One week after the terror attacks in Paris left 130 people dead, the United States and global community have intensified the resolve to defeat ISIS and prevent future attacks. In state houses across the country and in the U.S. House of Representatives, the conversation has shifted to refugee policy and preventing all Syrian refugees from entering the country until security measures can be stepped up. 2016 presidential candidates are weighing in as well with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump calling for a national database to track Muslims. Gwen Ifill explores how the attack shifted U.S. foreign policy and the race for the White House with Pete Williams of NBC News, Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics, Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post and Susan Davis of NPR.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: Looking back at a sobering week where lives were lost, threats escalated, and policymakers struggled to find the right answers, tonight on Washington Week .

PRESIDENT OF FRANCE FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (From video.) Vive la Republique. Viva la France.

MS. IFILL: The terror of vulnerability, in Paris, in Mali, and at home, spawning refugee backlash –

TEXAS GOVERNOR GREG ABBOTT (R): (From video.) As governor of the state of Texas, I will not roll the dice and take the risk on allowing a few refugees in simply to expose Texans to that danger.

MS. IFILL: – political declaration –

HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) Our nation has always been welcoming, but we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion.

FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) Turning away orphans, applying a religious test, discriminating against Muslims, slamming the door on every Syrian refugee, that is just not who we are.

FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR JEB BUSH (R): (From video.) This brutal savagery is a reminder of what’s at stake in this election.

MS. IFILL: And fears of another 9/11.

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY JEH JOHNSON: (From video.) I can build you a perfectly safe city, but it will look like a prison.

FBI DIRECTOR JAMES COMEY: (From video.) The most important thing, I think, is do not let fear become disabling.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) We are not well-served when in response to a terrorist attack we descend into fear and panic.

MS. IFILL: After Paris, what happens next?

Covering the Week, Susan Davis, congressional correspondent for NPR; Ed O’Keefe, congressional and political correspondent for The Washington Post ; Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics; and Pete Williams, justice correspondent for NBC News.

ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill . Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. Since last we gathered around this table, the worlds of politics and of security have shifted dramatically. Tonight, we’ll examine how the Paris attacks have altered the debates on Capitol Hill, on the campaign trail, and on the front lines of domestic security, from France to Belgium, from Mali to Times Square.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

ATTORNEY GENERAL LORETTA LYNCH: (From video.) Our highest priority is and will remain the security of our homeland and the safety of all Americans. We’re acting aggressively to diffuse threats as they emerge. And we are vigorously investigating and prosecuting those who seek to harm the American people.

MS. IFILL: Pete, you were there when she made those comments. What does she mean by that? What are we doing to investigate?

PETE WILLIAMS: She’s talking about the past year and a half efforts all the way up to the present against ISIS. This is not something the government just started. They’ve arrested and prosecuted about 70 people who have either tried to stage attacks here at the urging of ISIS or who have tried to go over to Syria and join ISIS there. In the past couple of days since Paris, what the FBI has done is take a small number of people that they think are the most inclined to follow ISIS instructions – as the FBI director says, on the spectrum of just interested to maybe wanting to go operational. He said it was dozens of people that they’ve redoubled their efforts to surveil. I’ve been told that number’s about 50, about four dozen. So they’ve been keeping extra eyes on them.

At the same time, he had some reassuring things to say. If you think about the Paris attack, it was an export. It was hatched in Belgium and moved into Paris. So if you think about that model here, he says he has not seen any indication that ISIS members have tried to come to the United States in the past days or weeks. They remain focused on the homegrown extremists, people swallowing this relentless propaganda from ISIS and being willing to stage some attacks here. And what they wanted to make sure is that Paris didn’t turn up the heat mentally on any of these people.

MS. IFILL: Did Paris become Mali, or do we not know yet?

MR. WILLIAMS: They don’t know. They don’t know if it’s ISIS or it seems to be an offshoot of al-Qaida. Whether Paris inclined these people to act it’s not clear. It may simply be the fact that there was all these international people meeting in the hotel for a peace conference. There were these nongovernmental organizations, people from the U.S., people from other countries. It may have been that confluence rather than Paris that made the action happen.

MS. IFILL: Alexis, you spend your time at the White House. And the president was kind of put back on his heels. A week ago in an interview with ABC that he felt like ISIS was contained. This was in the wake of the attack on the supply lines into Raqqa in Syria. Now the White House has spent the entire week saying we do too have a strategy.

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Yes. And the president, who is traveling abroad, as we know, and has been, and won’t be back until next week had to take a pounding from White House correspondents who were asking him questions. And we saw him on the defensive, again and again and again, trying to say – and his White House aides also – trying to say that, you know, what I meant was that we were talking about them being geographically contained, shrinking their territory. But then he offered this long explanation and said, you know, we’re going to stay the course. What we’re doing is right, it’s working.

And then he went through these arguments about why all the suggestions that might be out on the table – and we’ve heard the presidential candidates offer some of them – why he was rejecting them. Not combat troops. Why he’s just going to intensify. He talked about improving coordination, intelligence, intensification of the actual targeting, but not changing the strategy.

MS. IFILL: And doubling down on things like closing Guantanamo.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, and you know, the president is supposed to be going to Paris – what? Why is he going to Paris at the end of this month? To talk about climate change, right? So his mind has been going in a different direction. And this whole panoply of crisis has brought him back to an area he definitely does not want to be in and has been forced to really defend what he’s doing.

MS. IFILL: You know, on the campaign trail, Ed, there has been so much discussion about American engagement in issues like this. But you all have a new poll out tonight, which actually shows that Americans may think differently about our engagement in the world than we often think so.

ED O’KEEFE: Yeah. This was an incredible set of numbers that came out tonight showing that very quickly things have shifted, at least among Americans overall. I mean, look at this. Fifty-nine percent of Americans believe we’re at war with radical Islam, including a majority of Democrats. That’s the term the Republicans –

MS. IFILL: That phrase – hold that phrase in your – yeah.

MR. O’KEEFE: Exactly, because that’s the phrase that Republicans have seized upon for years, really, and have been throwing at the president and Hillary Clinton this week, saying you won’t call it that. Well, a majority of Americans agree with them. Sixty percent support deploying more ground troops, but only a third call for a large number. Again, that plays in favor of the Republicans who’ve been calling for ground troops. Seventy-three percent support U.S. taking part in a military response to Paris, but notably not taking the lead. And that, I think, shows the sort of modified stance that Americans have on all this, that we’re going to have to respond, but maybe not as aggressively or forcefully as we have in the past.

All of this, though, plays into what Republicans have been saying in the week since. Be more forceful. Be more – you know, deploy the military, really rethink the way that we’re engaging this around the world.

MS. IFILL: Who in particular? Who’s been leading the charge, especially on the military piece?

MR. O’KEEFE: Well, the one that was most clear on it I would say, at least among the Republicans, was Jeb Bush, who said we have to be overwhelming in our force, and it should include more ground troops. Now, he, as the others, defers to what military commanders might recommend. But the prospect of a third man named Bush deploying troops into the Middle East was raised by him saying this. And he clearly sees an opportunity here for himself to rebound by focusing on national security, because more broadly his campaign sees it as a conversation about, you know, who has the soberness and the experience and the maturity to hold the job when you’ve got guys like Donald Trump and Ben Carson out there saying some pretty interesting things.

MS. IFILL: Sue, we all remember after 9/11 that the conversation on Capitol Hill very quickly turned to what we should do to protect ourselves in terms of passing the Patriot Act, or declaring war, or having at least debates about declaring war. Is that what happened this week, or was it different?

SUSAN DAVIS: Yes. I think that the first turn they looked at is the refugee program, the refugees that are coming into the U.S., largely because one of the suspected terrorists in Paris allegedly used the refugee program to infiltrate that to come into the country. And that scared people. And when you talk to lawmakers they were hearing this at home. I think those poll numbers underscore that Americans are very aware of this threat. And the Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul said this week, look, we can’t send lawmakers home and not vote on anything. This is one vote in what they expect to be a multipronged legislative effort to look at this.

What the bill did this week – would effectively halt the program. Only about 1,800 refugees have come into this country in the past two years, but President Obama has said up to 10,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees can come in by the end of next year. And what they said is essentially the FBI has to come up with a better background check system –

MS. IFILL: Well, I’m going to stop you there, because before we even get to talking about the refugees, I guess I’m curious that it turned to a conversation so quickly about refugees. I mean, we’ll get back to that, but why weren’t we having a conversation about American involvement abroad?

MS. DAVIS: Because I think that people are afraid, and there is a fear center around this refugee program that it is somehow a possibility that terrorists could infiltrate it and come into the U.S. this way. And that the White House has defended it and said we’re confident in the system, these people are thoroughly vetted. It takes up to two years to bring these people in. But I think you saw in the vote this week, even after the White House said they would veto this bill nearly 50 Democrats voted with Republicans on this. And if those margins hold, it’s enough to override a veto. There’s a disconnect between the White House and what sentiment is like in Congress.

MS. IFILL: There is definitely a disconnect, even in the nature of the debate that we’re having. But let’s back up for a second. And, Pete, you start with this. What do we know and what don’t we know?

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, in terms of policy in the U.S. what we don’t know, for example, is something that the FBI has talked about a lot, about whether the terror plotters in France used encrypted communications. The signs are that they didn’t. We heard a lot of warnings about the danger if terror plotters are talking to each other using text messages that the government can’t intercept. Then they – this is the going dark problem, they call it. But it didn’t appear that the terror plotters in Paris did.

As a matter of fact, they found a discarded cellphone outside the nightclub that was attacked. And they actually opened it up and looked at the contents. And that helped to lead them to the apartment that they raided on Wednesday. So that says two things – the phone wasn’t locked and it wasn’t encrypted. But there was a lot of talk this week about the danger of what happens if the police can’t read the content of a phone or can’t look at the data when it’s in transit. So that’s something we don’t know.

I should say one other thing. Ordinarily in something like this that maybe unfolds more slowly, the foreign authorities are in close touch with Americans and others. That wasn’t the case so much this week. The French police had their hands full. They were staging dozens of raids every night, trying to prevent what they thought was another imminent attack. And they’ve sort of said to the American intelligence and law enforcement community, you know, hang on, we’re a little busy right now, we’ll get you informed later.

MS. IFILL: Really?


MS. IFILL: So the U.S. has not been actively involved to that degree with this investigation?

MR. WILLIAMS: Correct. That’s right.

MS. IFILL: So go ahead, Alexis.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, let me just add, though, that President Hollande will be in the United States this coming week.

MS. IFILL: That’s my point, yeah.

MS. SIMENDINGER: And he will be visiting Moscow as well. And the French asked for information, intelligence sharing, because they’re not part of the so-called five eyes network, and really were trying to appeal to the members of that, and the United States in particular. The United States offered intelligence to the French in order to do the strikes in Raqqa, right, so the actual targeting. So –

MR. WILLIAMS: But I’m talking about information coming from France, and that’s a different matter in terms of this attack.

MS. IFILL: Yeah. Well, but this is – but it’s related. And you just touched on something which is interesting. President Hollande is coming here on Tuesday, leaving here and going to Moscow. That’s an interesting triangular trip right now – (laughter) – especially when you draw the line between Moscow and Washington and Syria.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, what’s interesting about this – well, everything is interesting about it. But the complications of this are so extraordinary. And what the French president is interested in is trying to get President Obama to think differently about this idea that the United States and the Russians are not actually coordinating over what’s happening in Syria. In other words, there’s this facade that two countries are using air strikes against supposedly the same common enemy – and we can talk about whether that’s really true – but that they’re not actually coordinating.

Although, the president speaking with President Putin in Turkey, the suggestion was that President Putin brought satellite photographs and was trying to explain to the president, here’s what’s going on in Syria, here’s what we need to do. You know, Putin always has an angle on everything. And in this case, President Hollande is trying to say, we don’t have time. We don’t have time for you to work this out with the two –

MS. IFILL: And to worry about Assad’s future.

MS. SIMENDINGER: And worry about the fact that you two are not getting along, or Russia and the United States have differences over Ukraine, or whatever. This is happening in Europe. This is now. This is urgent. Let’s talk about this. So we’ll see.

MS. IFILL: So when we go to the campaign trail and to Congress, let’s – let me pose that question, what do we know and what don’t we know, to you guys.

MR. O’KEEFE: I would say we know that Republicans are eager to talk about this issue. I think they see this as – you know, as violent as it was and unfortunate as it is – crassly, they see it as a political opportunity, because it not only allows them to criticize the president, it allows them to criticize the woman who was helping shape his foreign policy for so long, Hillary Clinton. And they see big weakness there for her if that’s what she wants to run on.

MS. IFILL: In fact, we weren’t surprised when we – that this became such a big political debate, only that it happened so quickly. The flashpoint, however, did not turn, as it has in the past, on questions of war and retaliation but, as we’ve been discussing, on whether refugees from the fighting in Syria should be allowed into the U.S. Front-running Republicans Donald Trump and Ben Carson said Muslim Syrian refugees should be subject to stricter immigration rules.

DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We can’t take a chance on ISIS. It could be the great Trojan horse. We cannot take a chance that some of these people coming in are ISIS.

DR. BEN CARSON: (From video.) If there’s a rabid dog running around in your neighborhood, you’re probably not going to assume something good about that dog. Doesn’t mean that you hate all dogs by any stretch of the imagination but you’re putting your intellect into motion. And you’re thinking, how do I protect my children?

MS. IFILL: Trump even suggested all Muslims in the U.S. should be tracked in a database. The president, traveling this week in Asia, dismissed all of this.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) They’ve been playing on fear in order to try to score political points or to advance their campaigns. And it’s irresponsible. And it’s contrary to who we are. And it needs to stop, because the world is watching.

MS. IFILL: And Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton did the same thing. But in 30 state capitals and in the U.S. House the instinct was to pull back.

SOUTH CAROLINA GOVERNOR NIKKI HALEY (R): (From video.) And if in doubt at all, we have to say no to that. We have to say hold back. If you tell us that we don’t have enough information to secure our state, we can’t go forward.

MS. IFILL: Let’s start with the debate on the Hill. What is the practical effect of this week’s House vote to stop Syrian and Iraqi refugees? We know that they’re talking about it. They know that this is an important – I guess they can chalk up a couple wins on this. But can they really do it?

MS. DAVIS: Well, you know, it’s not over, because Republicans are also looking at what we have in December, another funding bill to keep the government open. And Republicans said this week, look, we might try and attach it to this and force the president to vote against a bill, and may have another government shutdown fight. I think it’s the first part in what is going to be a series of votes this fall that lawmakers are talking about that is not only the refugee program.

They’re also looking at something called the Visa Waiver Program. It’s the program that lets us travel back and forth between countries fairly freely – countries like France. Dianne Feinstein has a bill that would make anyone that’s traveled to Iraq or Syria in the past five years incapable of coming to the U.S. through that program.

MR. WILLIAMS: Without a visa. They have to have a visa.

MS. DAVIS: Without a visa. They’d have to come through it another way, through clearances. There’s also talk among Democrats about trying to revive gun legislation that says if you’re on a terror watch list you can’t buy a gun in this country, which currently they can do.

MR. O’KEEFE: But you asked earlier, and it’s important to point out, they’re not talking about potential military engagement.

MS. IFILL: It’s amazing.

MR. O’KEEFE: It is. And for years, I mean, since 2013 essentially, Congress –

MS. IFILL: Well, except for John McCain, to be fair.

MR. O’KEEFE: Well, and a few others.

MS. IFILL: And Lindsey Graham.

MR. O’KEEFE: Yes, and a few others. But essentially –

MS. DAVIS: Tim Kaine.

MR. O’KEEFE: And he’s the one, exactly. Tim Kaine and John McCain have been saying for years, we need a new authorization. We need to revise, you know, the laws that allow us to go out and attack these guys militarily. Congress refuses to do it because, as the polling showed, while there’s general support, it’s the specifics that will always catch them up. And the presidential candidates suffered through it as well this week. They refused to give specifics.

MS. DAVIS: And it’s much easier – it’s much easier to blame Obama than to force lawmakers to take some kind of ownership in this strategy –

MR. O’KEEFE: Absolutely.

MS. DAVIS: – which is a large reason why they don’t want to vote on another authorization.

MR. WILLIAMS: One reason why this visa waiver thing is a big deal is you have roughly 5,000 people from Western European countries who have gone to Syria and come back. Now, contrast that with the situation here. We learned an interesting number this week. The government has always said 250 Americans are in that category. What the FBI director told us yesterday is that the total number of Americans thought to have come from the U.S., or people in the U.S. gone to Syria, associated with ISIS and come back is in the teens. You contrast that with this enormous problem in Western Europe, that’s what’s giving rise to the visa waiver issue. If people can go to Syria and come back to Western Europe by the thousands, what’s to stop them from flying into the U.S. without – and they don’t need to have a visa? That’s the energy behind this visa waiver point.

MS. IFILL: But I also wonder whether the president has the support of his own party on this. We did see a lot of Democrats jump off the ship this week, especially when it came to this refugee issue.

MS. SIMENDINGER: In the House, the president very quickly – and, you know, I would say not quickly enough – but he did quickly begin to recognize that, in the House, Democrats were going to go their own way on this out of concern about their districts, out of concern about their own elections, out of concern that perhaps the president was a lame duck at this point, they weren’t going to stick their neck out for him.

The president is now under the belief that, in the Senate, Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, is going to try to block this legislative move in the Senate.

MS. IFILL: Harry Reid – Harry Reid dismissed a reporter’s question this week by saying it’s never going to happen, don’t worry about it.

MS. SIMENDINGER: But as Sue is suggesting, the White House is conversing with senators over these other moderating kind of alternatives to this –

MS. IFILL: They are?


MS. IFILL: Even though they put out a veto threat before this bill was even written?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes. Yes, because they began to realize that their effort to just say no was not going to be enough on this. It was not going to satisfy Democrats, you know, and that there might be a need to adjust or adapt rather than to just plain veto.

MS. IFILL: What is vetting? The one thing everybody seems to agree on is there should be better vetting or there should be clearer vetting. It’s almost like the discussion that’s happening in Europe about putting borders back up between countries. Don’t we vet already?

MR. WILLIAMS: Yes, there is a vetting program, and the administration admits that there are – here’s the thing. If someone is proposed as a refugee by, for example, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, someone from the Department of Homeland Security, a person will meet them and interview them, and they will look at a number of things. Where do they want to go? Do they have family members here? Do they have some medical or mental problem that suggests they should go one place rather than another to get treatment? They look at their background. They say, well, you know, why do you want to come? Why are you leaving the country? Well, I was at a demonstration on November 13 th and they killed my family. Then they will look and see, well, was there a demonstration on November 13 th ? So they look at the criminal backgrounds. They look at all those things.

Some of the problem here is that both the FBI director and the secretary of homeland security have said, look, we admit there are gaps here. We don’t – we can’t go to the police in Syria or the justice department in Syria and say give us the file on Ed O’Keefe because that sort of information isn’t available. What they say is they’re better at it now. They consult the databases better. There’s more agencies involved. And they insist that it’s very thorough and that it’s quite safe.

MS. IFILL: This has been a week of a lot of tough talk, especially on the campaign trail. It seems like that was the first option – not only Donald Trump, but also Ben Carson; not only Ben Carson, but also Ted Cruz. And they really – and even Hillary Clinton’s speech was pretty tough and uncompromising. Is that because they know that many Americans, basically, when it comes down to it, agree with them on this or are scared enough that this is the kind of thing? When Hillary Clinton says this is not who we are, is that true?

MR. O’KEEFE: No, I think they know that Americans are scared. I think they were probably looking at similar polling that they’ve been doing themselves that shows that Americans are concerned about this.

I think, honestly, they also – they see it as a chance to hit the president. They see it as a chance – the more substantive candidates, let’s put it that way – we’ll get mail, whatever – see it as a chance to appear as if they could be commander in chief. And so I think they are more than willing to take the opportunity.

MS. DAVIS: I also think what the post-9/11 elections have taught us is that if the climate – election climate is about national security, that is good for Republicans.


MS. DAVIS: And that another telling thing this week was that Democratic Senate candidates in Nevada and New Hampshire gave very favorable comments towards the pause, essentially leaning towards what Republicans were saying, because that shows you in competitive states, in competitive races, those swingy independent voters tend to come down on the side of Republicans when it comes to feeling safe.

MS. IFILL: And this is not new, is it, Alexis?

MS. SIMENDINGER: It’s not new. And I would just add that, because we’re looking at all these candidates who don’t have a firm idea, there is no consensus, the American people, if you look at these polls, they’re all over the map too, right? You know, they feel one way about their fear and they feel another way about their rights. They feel one way about ISIS, which they may not understand, and they feel another way about, you know, what they’re willing to do with the military. So I’m very sympathetic to the American people, who are confused. And that’s why there’s a lot of pressure on Obama –

MS. IFILL: Brief final thought.

MR. WILLIAMS: I did note that, when all this talk about refugees here, the president of France said this week how many more Syrian refugees France would be accepting.

MS. IFILL: So as much as we’re pulling back, other nations are not necessarily. Very interesting. Well, this is going to continue to develop. Thank you, everybody, for a nice, thoughtful conversation.

There is more to talk about, but it’s going to have to happen online. That’s on the Washington Week Webcast Extra , where we’ll talk about today’s release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. You can find that later tonight and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Stay up to date with the latest every night with Judy Woodruff and me on the PBS NewsHour . Best wishes for a wonderful Thanksgiving. Do not eat too much, because I will. (Laughter.) Good night.


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