President Donald Trump told Malcolm Turnbull that the Australian prime minister was "worse" for refugees than he is, according to a leaked transcript of a heated January phone call between the two leaders in which Trump repeatedly called Australia's offshore immigration detention facilities "prisons."
The Washington Post on Thursday published a leaked transcript of the first phone calls between President Trump and the leaders of Australia and Mexico. The same newspaper in February broke the news of the anger with which Trump spoke to the leader of Australia, a close US ally.
"That is a good idea. We should do that too," Trump told Turnbull after the prime minister explained how Australia holds people who arrive in the country via boat without the required visas in detention facilities in Nauru and on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island. "You are worse than I am."
Turnbull spent the vast majority of the phone call trying to convince Trump to honor a deal struck under President Barack Obama, under which the US agreed to resettle up to 1,250 refugees in exchange for Australia taking refugees from Central America. On Feb. 1, after their phone call, Trump tweeted that the deal was "dumb," but Vice President Mike Pence said definitively in April that the new administration would honor the agreement.
During the phone call, Trump repeatedly appeared to be unfamiliar with the specifics of the deal; he inquired whether it was negotiated by Obama, mistakenly said it would require him to accept 2,000 refugees ("I have also heard like 5,000 as well," Trump said at one point), and at one point asked, "What is the thing with boats? Why do you discriminate against boats?"
"This is going to kill me," Trump said of the deal. "I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country. And now I am agreeing to take 2,000 people and I agree I can vet them, but that puts me in a bad position. It makes me look so bad and I have only been here a week."
"With great respect, that is not right – It is not 2,000," Turnbull responded.
Trump was also concerned that abiding by the deal after implementing his January travel ban would make him look weak. He also expressed concern that the refugees would bring terrorism to the US.
"I guarantee you they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now. They are not going to be wonderful people who go on to work for the local milk people," Trump said.
"I would not be so sure about that," Turnbull replied. "They are basically —"
"Well, maybe you should let them out of prison," Trump responded.
The conservative Australian government describes the facilities as immigration detention facilities, not prisons. Nonetheless, their harsh conditions and indefinite detention have been denounced by human rights groups.
Trump said that honoring the "rotten" deal would make him look "foolish," complaining that the US would be "a dumping ground". At one point, the president appeared unfamiliar with the nationalities of the Boston Bombers:
TRUMP: Does anybody know who these people are? Who are they? Where do they come from? Are they going to become the Boston bomber in five years? Or two years? Who are these people?
TURNBULL: Let me explain. We know exactly who they are. They have been on Nauru or Manus for over three years and the only reason we cannot let them into Australia is because of our commitment to not allow people to come by boat. Otherwise we would have let them in. If they had arrived by airplane and with a tourist visa then they would be here.
TRUMP: Malcom [sic], but they are arrived on a boat?
TURNBULL: Correct, we have stopped the boats.
TRUMP: Give them to the United States. We are like a dumping ground for the rest of the world. I have been here for a period of time, I just want this to stop. I look so foolish doing this. It [sic] know it is good for you but it is bad for me. It is horrible for me. This is what I am trying to stop. I do not want to have more San Bernardino’s or World Trade Centers. I could name 30 others, but I do not have enough time.
TURNBULL: These guys are not in that league. They are economic refugees.
TRUMP:Okay, good. Can Australia give me a guarantee that if we have any problems – you know that is what they said about the Boston bombers. They said they were wonderful young men.
TURNBULL: They were Russians. They were not from any of these countries.
TRUMP: They were from wherever they were.
Trump told Turnbull he had spoken with the leaders of Russia, Germany, Japan, and France that same day, "and this was my most unpleasant call because I will be honest with you."
Ultimately, the president told the prime minister he would say he had "no choice" but to honor Obama's deal, before curtly ending the phone call. "Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous," he said.
TRUMP: I do not know where they find these people to make these stupid deals. I am going to get killed on this thing.
TURNBULL: You will not.
TRUMP: Yes, I will be seen as a weak and ineffective leader in my first week by these people. This is a killer.
TURNBULL: You can certainly say that it was not a deal that you would have done, but you are going to stick with it.
TRUMP: I have no choice to say that about it. Malcom [sic], I am going 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 will say it just that way. As far as I am concerned that is enough Malcom [sic]. I have had it. 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: Do you want to talk about Syria and DPRK?
TRUMP: [inaudible] this is crazy.
TURNBULL: Thank you for your commitment. It is very important to us.
TRUMP: It is important to you and it is embarrassing to me. It is an embarrassment to me, but at least I got you off the hook. So you put me back on the hook.
TURNBULL: You can count on me. I will be there again and again.
TRUMP: I hope so. Okay, thank you Malcolm.
TURNBULL: Okay, thank you.
After the Washington Post in February reported on the heated nature of the phone call, Turnbull denied that Trump had hung up on him, saying the “frank discussion” had ended “courteously”.
Trump then thanked Turnbull on Twitter, saying the media had lied about their "very civil conversation."
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David Mack is a reporter and weekend editor for BuzzFeed News in New York.
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