During a flurry of post-inauguration international calls, new U.S. President Donald Trump had a particularly acrimonious discussion with Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister. Ankit Panda wrote at the time, “If there’s any country whose leader can be expected to enjoy a cordial phone call with the president of the United States, it should be Australia, which shares a long-standing alliance with Washington.” Panda was correct in that assessment, but Trump is not a man to be tied by expectations, or, as the leaked transcript of the call proves, by deals made by his predecessor.
News of the January 28 call’s abrupt ending — it lasted 25 minutes rather than an hour — was reported first by the Washington Post, which released the full White House transcript of the call today.
The transcript bears out what the Post reported in February: the call devolved into an argument of sorts over a refugee transfer deal made by the Obama administration. The deal, which Turnbull described in detail on the call and was seeking to confirm with the new president, obliged the United States to “look and examine and take up to and only if they so choose – 1,250 to 2,000” refugees which Australia has had interned on the islands of Nauru and Manus for more than three years.
Reading the transcript of the call, three things become immediately clear: First, Trump is obsessed with how the deal will make him look, vis-a-vis his refugee ban policy; second, Trump is particularly incensed that the deal was struck by Obama; and third, Trump does not seem to be listening to what Turnbull is actually saying.
Turnbull, early in the call, pivots from introductory pleasantries to highlighting similarities in U.S. and Australian policies with regard to “national security and border protection.” Turnbull name-drops Jared Kushner, who he says he’d recently spoken to, and notes, “It is very interesting to know how you prioritize the minorities in your Executive Order.” Turnbull, perhaps playing off Trump’s perceived biases, comments that 90 percent of the 12,000 Syrian refugees Australia has agreed to take in are Christian. He couches it in the dressings of practicality: “…it is a tragic fact of life that when the situation in the Middle East settles down – the people that are going to be most unlikely to have a continuing home are those Christian minorities… It is not a sectarian thing. It is recognition of the practical political realities.”
When Turnbull turns the conversation to “the issue of the resettlement agreement that we had with the Obama administration with respect to some people on Nauru and Manus Island,” the bonhomie breaks down.
Trump immediately references his ban on Syrian refugees and says taking 2,000 refugees would “make us look awfully bad.” He makes meandering references to the Mariel boatlift, a mass emigration of Cubans to the U.S. in 1980, his love of Australia and Australians, and then to the 2015 attack in San Bernardino and the World Trade Center. Never mind that neither of the San Bernardino attackers, nor any of the 9/11 attackers, came to the U.S. as refugees.
Turnbull then implores Trump: “Can you hear me out Mr. President?” He points out that Vice President Mike Pence “less than 24 hours ago” had “said your administration would be continuing” the agreement, which “does not require you to take 2,000 people.”
“…[T]his is a big deal, I think we should respect deals,” Turnbull says, appealing to Trump the dealmaker.
Trump’s reaction? “Who made the deal? Obama?”
Turnbull then tries to explain the details of the deal, repeating over and over again that it does not obligate the United States to take any refugees, only to go through the process of vetting them. Turnbull also tries to explain that the refugees are “economic refugees from Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan” and that they’ve been under view of the Australian government for years, so “we know exactly everything about them.”
Turnbull also explains Australia’s strict immigration policy: put simply, anyone attempting to reach Australia by boat is detained and not allowed to be settled in Australia. Put even simpler: no boats.
“It is not because they are bad people,” Turnbull told Trump, “It is because in order to stop people smugglers, we had to deprive them of the product. So we said if you try to come to Australia by boat, even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Noble [sic] Prize winning genius, we will not let you in.”
Trump interrupts to say, “That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am.”
After an aside about how refugees are destroying Germany, Turnbull steers the conversation back to Australia’s policy and how important it is for the United States to confirm the agreement: “I say this to you sincerely that it is in the mutual interest of the United States to say, ‘yes, we can conform with that deal – we are not obliged to take anybody we do not want, we will go through extreme vetting’ and that way you are seen to show the respect that a trusted ally wants and deserves.”
The conversation breaks down again, with Trump seeming to have not heard Turnbull’s repeated explanations. “Malcom [sic], why is this so important? I do not understand,” Trump says, rather than perhaps reiterating American respect for the relationship with Australia.
He goes on to say that after speaking to Russian President Vladimir Putin (listed first), German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, “ this was my most unpleasant call…”
Turnbull tries to appeal to Trump the dealmaker again: “But can I say to you, there is nothing more important in business or politics than a deal is a deal.” He also tries to appeal to the value of commitments in international relations: “Mr. President, I think this will make you look like a man who stands by the commitments of the United States.”
But a deal is not a deal for Trump, if the deal was made by anyone other than Trump.
Following Turnbull’s commitment comment, Trump cuts him off: “Okay, this shows me to be a dope.” He goes into a rant about how the Obama administration made “a stupid deal like all the other deals that this country signed.”
There’s more explaining and more not listening and this gem from Trump: “What is the thing with boats? Why do you discriminate against boats?”
In the end the call concludes abruptly, with Trump petulantly saying he would be forced to “say that I have no choice but to honor my predecessor’s deal. I think it is a horrible deal, a disgusting deal that I would have never made. It is an embarrassment to the United States of America and you can say it just the way I said it.”
“I have had it,” Trump says. “I have been making these calls all day and this is the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous.”
Turnbull asks if Trump wants to discuss Syria and North Korea; Trump replies “…this is crazy.”
The call ends shortly thereafter, with Turnbull reiterating, “You can count on me. I will be there again and again.” Trump replies, “I hope so.”
It’s quite obviously a call between an experienced politician (Turnbull) and a political neophyte. Turnbull turns time and again to the importance of honoring commitments and the good optics of doing so; Trump has trouble understanding Australian policy, doesn’t actually listen to what Turnbull says, wanders off course often and seems abjectly uninterested in compromise.