AILSA CHANG, HOST:
It felt like a bit of a return to normal, pre-pandemic times today at the White House. President Biden welcomed Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga for an actual in-person official visit. It is Biden's first face-to-face meeting as president with another world leader, and that also indicates how much the administration is focused on relationships in East Asia as it works to counter China's expanding influence.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're going to work together to prove that democracies can still compete and win in the 21st century. We can deliver...
CHANG: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow is at the White House and joins us now. Hey, Scott.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good afternoon.
CHANG: Hey. So what did Biden and Suga focus on today?
DETROW: Well, they talked a lot about China. President Biden has increasingly made this a central theme of his presidency. Biden has cited the need to strategically counter China as the rationale for everything from pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan this year to the need to pass a $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Suga said they talked about North Korea as well - in both cases, a lot of conversation from both leaders at the press conference about seeking stability, strengthening partnerships and being blunt about the threats the U.S. and Japan both face. Suga in particular said a lot about democratic values, human rights - values where Biden has said he's particularly worried that authoritarian countries like China oppose. And it's notable the topic of increased anti-Asian hate speech in the U.S. did come up in this meeting as well.
CHANG: Right. OK, well, as we mentioned, this was Biden's first in-person visit with another world leader. I'm curious. How did the White House handle that during a pandemic?
DETROW: Biden has had some at times pretty awkward virtual visits with other world leaders where he's standing next to, like, a big TV screen of Justin Trudeau. You know, he has not traveled abroad yet. No one's come here. So it was a real mix. You saw some of the usual ceremony that accompanies visits like this - Japanese flags posted throughout the White House. There was a big military honor guard welcoming the prime minister as he drove up. But everyone's wearing masks at these meetings. No one is shaking hands. There's no state dinner accompanying this meeting - so a lot of the just general awkwardness that comes along with meeting face-to-face in a pandemic.
CHANG: Well, also, there's been a lot of confusion today over an announcement that's been highly anticipated by some. This has to do with whether Biden would reverse the limits that former President Trump had put in place on how many refugees can come into the U.S. Can you just explain what is the latest on that now?
DETROW: Well, the latest is the key term here because first, we heard the White House would keep the number at 15,000 for this year, where President Trump had set it. They'd be loosening some restrictions within that and promising to speed up applications. But it surprised a lot of people. It really angered their Democratic allies. And in fact, just now the White House has signaled it may walk this announcement back. You know, keep in mind Biden had campaigned on returning refugee caps to much higher numbers - 125,000. And instead they said they'd be keeping it at the Trump number. The administration first argued that this was because the current system needs major overhauls before they can expand the numbers again. And they'd be working to fill those spots quickly, but they got pretty quick, fast criticism.
CHANG: Yeah. How have lawmakers responded so far?
DETROW: You know, one example would be Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate who is not exactly a bomb thrower. He's part of leadership. He's a close ally. He said the Biden administration's admissions target is unacceptable. He said, these refugees can't wait any longer. He ended his statement with, say it ain't so, President Joe. And then you have the statement from the White House saying that this is still all in the works. There's still more progress, and the president might issue a new, bigger number in about a month. So clearly, they felt the pressure and responded.
CHANG: Yeah. That is NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow. Thank you, Scott.
DETROW: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.