Report: Trump, Australian PM Turnbull have tense phone call over Muslim refugees

U.S. President Donald Trump (L), seated at his desk with National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (2nd R) and senior advisor Steve Bannon (R), speaks by phone with Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 28, 2017. 

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTSXTYW

Last Updated Feb 2, 2017 7:28 AM EST

CANBERRA, Australia -- Australia’s prime minister said his country’s relationship with the United States remained “very strong” but refused to comment on a newspaper report on Thursday that an angry President Donald Trump cut short their first telephone call as national leaders.

At the heart of the weekend conversation between Mr. Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was a deal struck with the Obama administration that would allow mostly Muslim refugees rejected by Australia to be resettled in the United States.

Late Wednesday evening, Mr. Trump tweeted a complaint about the deal, referring to the 1,250 refugees that were agreed upon in the deal as “thousands.”

Turnbull declined to comment on reports in The Washington Post that the president had described the agreement as “the worst deal ever” and accused Turnbull of seeking to export the “next Boston bombers.”

Turnbull initially would not say whether Mr. Trump had abruptly ended the expected hour-long conversation after 25 minutes as the Australian attempted to steer the conversation to other topics.

“It’s better that these things - these conversations - are conducted candidly, frankly, privately,” Turnbull told reporters.

Turnbull did, however, tell reporters about what Mr. Trump said about the refugee agreement. 

“The President assured me that he would continue with, honor the agreement we entered into with the Obama administration with respect to refugee resettlement,” Turnbull said.

In another interview, with Sydney radio station 2GB, Turnbull denied Mr. Trump had hung up on him, saying the conversation had ended “courteously.” 

Under the agreement, refugees from among around 1,600 asylum seekers, most of whom are on island camps on the Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, would be resettled in the U.S. Australia has refused to accept them and instead pays for them to be housed on the impoverished islands.

“I can assure you the relationship is very strong,” Turnbull said. “The fact we received the assurance that we did, the fact that it was confirmed, the very extensive engagement we have with the new administration underlines the closeness of the alliance. But as Australians know me very well: I stand up for Australia in every forum - public or private.”

The Washington Post story immediately shot to the top of trending topics on Twitter in Australia. It was plastered across the top of Australia’s major news sites, and the nation’s news networks launched into lengthy, running commentaries on it.

President Trump, who a day before the conversation had signed an executive order suspending the admission of refugees, had complained that he was “going to get killed” politically by the deal, the newspaper reported, citing anonymous officials.

“I don’t want these people,” Mr. Trump reportedly said. He also told Turnbull that he had spoken to four world leaders that day and “This is the worst call by far.” Among the other world leaders Mr. Trump spoke with that day was Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The president told Turnbull that it was “my intention” to honor the agreement, a phrase designed to leave the president wriggle room to back out of the deal, the newspaper reported.

There were some mixed-messages from Washington this week on the state of the agreement.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer confirmed on Wednesday that Mr. Trump had agreed to honor the deal.

But a White House statement sent to Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Thursday said: “The president is still considering whether or not he will move forward with this deal at this time.”

The U.S. State Department said in a statement later Thursday that the United States would honor the agreement “out of respect for close ties to our Australian ally and friend.”

“President Trump’s decision to honor the refugee agreement has not changed and Spokesman Spicer’s comments stand,” the State Department said.

The ABC spoke to senior Australian government sources who said The Washington Post report was “substantially accurate.”

Australian officials said the conversation was “robust” and “shorter than expected,” while one minister has told the ABC that “Trump hates this deal.”

Opposition leader Bill Shorten called on Turnbull to be open about his interaction with Mr. Trump, saying The Washington Post version of the call was worrying.

“We shouldn’t be finding out about what’s happening to Australian policy through the news of foreign countries,” Shorten said. “I think our own prime minister should be telling us straight what’s going on.”

Turnbull has likened himself to President Trump in that both are wealthy businessmen who came to politics late in life. Turnbull also has a reputation for blunt conversation and tough negotiations behind closed doors.

Turnbull has resisted pressure this week to join other Western leaders in condemning Trump’s temporary ban of immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries.

“When I have frank advice to give to an American president, I give it privately, as good friends should, as wise prime ministers do when they want to ensure they are best able to protect Australians and Australia’s national interest,” Turnbull told reporters on Tuesday.

Some observers suspect Turnbull has held his tongue because he is grateful to the president for agreeing to honor the refugee deal.