World First Look

What happened between Trump and Australia's prime minister?

A refugee deal struck by the Obama administration – and loathed by Trump – was at the root of a tendentious phone call between Trump and Malcolm Turnbull.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull comments on a deal with the United States accepting refugees from Australia at Parliament House in Canberra, on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.
Mick Tsikas/AAP/AP | Caption

The normally placid alliance between Australia and the United States got a shakeup on Wednesday after President Trump ended what was scheduled to be an hour-long phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull just 25 minutes into it, according to reports. 

Mr. Trump became angry at Mr. Turnbull’s insistence that he honor an Obama-era agreement to take in 1,250 refugees held in Australian detention centers in exchange for Australia’s resettling of another group of refugees from Central America – a deal that Trump said would cost him politically and amount to importing the “next Boston bombers," according to The Washington Post. The phone call, he told Turnbull, was “the worst call by far” of a string made to several other world leaders that day. And attempts by Turnbull and White House officials to play down the testiness of the call were partly foiled by Trump himself, who took to Twitter afterward to denounce the deal. 

"Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!” he wrote.

The tweet came less than two hours after the US embassy in Canberra said it had received confirmation that the agreement would go forth as planned, further raising doubts about whether Trump would fulfill it. And his grounds of opposition to the deal – that the United States wasn’t getting anything out of it – underscores a transactional approach to foreign policy that could reshape the country’s map of alliances.

The rocky call with Australia’s prime minister came less than a week after a similarly tendentious call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, in which Trump was reported to have browbeaten Mr. Peña Nieto over Mexico's inability to crush powerful drug cartels and suggested – jokingly, an administration official later said – that the US could send its army to Mexico to solve the problem, according to the Associated Press. But the most significant focus of potential upheaval, wrote The Christian Science Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi in January, may be with Europe. 

The latest sign that Mr. Trump plans to blaze a new path for US-Europe relations came in a weekend interview he gave the Times of London and Germany’s Bild in which he expressed indifference to prospects for the European Union.  

Predicting further disintegration of the EU following Britain’s vote last summer to leave the 28-nation union, Trump said, “I don’t think it matters much for the United States.” Moreover, he repeated his campaign assessment that NATO is “obsolete” and criticized Alliance members that don’t pay their share of Europe’s defense costs....

But European leaders’ immediate shock and dismay in response to Trump’s latest signs of euroskepticism say more about Europe than the US, some regional analysts say.  

“If the Europeans are shocked and horrified at what Trump’s saying, all it tells me is that they are terrible analysts who simply refuse to see what’ going on,” says John Hulsman, a transatlantic affairs expert who heads his own global risk consulting firm in Germany. “The European elites for whom Europe is a religion thought that Trump the president would adopt the faith and drop the heretical views of Trump the candidate,” he adds, “so it’s a shock to them that he means what he says.”

In the call with Turnbull, Trump is said to have also bragged of his election victory and the size of his inauguration’s attendance, along the lines of his comments on the matter at commemorations of Martin Luther King Jr., a speech at CIA headquarters, and meetings with lawmakers. 

Kim Beazley, a former Australian ambassador to the United States during the Obama era, told The New York Times that fallout would likely be “minimal” as long as Trump did not back out of the refugee deal, while adding, “If the tonality is true you wouldn’t want to have too many conversations like that.”