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Revelations that U.S. President Donald Trump blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in a phone call on Sunday and called a deal between the two nations over refugees “dumb” sent the Australian media into overdrive Thursday as reporters – and politicians – aimed to clarify what many called “mixed messages” coming from the White House.
Details of the phone call between the two leaders were published by The Washington Post Wednesday and confirmed within hours by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) Thursday Australian time. They were dissected at length all day Thursday on talk radio and in digital media down under and led the evening TV news shows.
During the 25-minute conversation, Trump reportedly told Turnbull that a refugee resettlement cut in November between the two countries was “the worst deal ever,” accused Australia of wanting to “export the next Boston Bombers,” was the “worst call by far” of the five he had with world leaders that day and hung up 25 minutes into the scheduled one-hour call.
At the heart of Trump’s angst is a deal struck between the U.S. and Australia in November, before Trump came to power, under which 1,250 refugees seeking asylum in Australia but detained on Nauru and Manus Island in the Pacific Ocean would be resettled in the U.S. Many of the refugees come from nations covered by Trump’s immigration ban.
Caught on the back foot by the Post report, Turnbull was more circumspect than Trump, initially telling reporters that the conversation had been “robust” on Thursday, adding that the discussions were “candid” and “frankly private.”
That was put to rest by a tweet from Trump that said he would reexamine the “dumb deal.” He wrote: “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”
The ABC called out errors in Trump’s tweet, which called the refugees “illegal immigrants” and referred to them by the thousands when the number is 1,250.
Turnbull said he was “very disappointed about the leak in Washington of what purports to be details about the call” but affirmed that the alliance between the two countries was strong after “the forthright discussions where we express our views as good friends should.”
Reporters in Australia were at pains to clarify the “mixed messages” coming out of the White House and the U.S. embassy in Canberra, with Turnbull and his ministers declaring that the deal remained in place.
“During the course of the conversation — and it was confirmed by the president’s official spokesman — the president assured me that he would continue with, honor the agreement we entered into with the Obama administration with respect to the refugee settlement,” Turnbull said in one interview.
Nine Network political editor Laurie Oakes, regarded as the most senior political reporter in the country, called Trump “erratic” and praised Turnbull for not allowing himself to be bullied by Trump. “Prime Minister Turnbull refused to be bullied by Donald Trump in a tense phone call at the weekend, telling the erratic leader, ‘You’re a businessman. I’m a businessman. A deal is a deal,” Oakes revealed on Nine’s top-rated evening news bulletin.
“President Trump’s aggression towards the leader of one of America’s closest allies caused astonishment among diplomats and foreign policy analysts,” Oakes said. “And now the erratic Mr. Trump has hinted via Twitter he might dud Mr. Turnbull anyway.” Others observed that should the deal be upheld, Trump will call in a favor eventually.
Rupert Murdoch’s Australian broadsheet The Australian, however, pointed to Turnbull’s silence on Trump’s U.S. travel ban, calling it an “implicit criticism” that “left our most important ally swinging in the wind.”
And ABC political reporter Greg Jennett observed that there’s “a lesson for all world leaders from today: how brutal the tactics the Trump administration will employ when they feel they’ve been backed into a corner.”
Several commentators said it was the lowest point in U.S.-Australian relations in 40 years, since President Richard Nixon criticized then-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam for his views on the Vietnam War.
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