US President Donald Trump said on Thursday he will review a “dumb deal” to take hundreds of Australian asylum seekers after the Washington Post reported he had angrily berated Australia’s prime minister and abruptly ended a tense telephone call.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told reporters the call on Saturday had been frank and candid but refused to provide further details on a “private” conversation that has hit headlines on both sides of the world.
The Washington Post reported that Trump had described the call with the leader of Australia, one of the United States’ staunchest allies, as “the worst so far”.
It came less than a day after Washington had sown confusion in Australia after saying it would apply “extreme vetting” as part of the refugee resettlement deal.
The deal was agreed late last year between Australia, which has fought alongside US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the administration of former President Barack Obama.
Trump said on Twitter not long before midnight Washington time:
Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2017
As part of the deal, Washington agreed to resettle up to 1,250 asylum seekers held in offshore processing camps on Pacific islands in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. In return, Australia would resettle refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Trump’s comments cast further doubt on the resettlement deal, which was already in question after Trump signed an executive order last week that suspended the US refugee programme and restricted entry to the United States for travellers from majority-Muslim countries such as Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
Many of those being held in the Australian detention centres, which have drawn harsh criticism from the United Nations and rights groups, have fled violence in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.
‘Worst by far’
Quoting unidentified senior US officials briefed on the conversation, the Post reported that Trump had told Turnbull he had spoken to four other world leaders on Saturday, including Russian president Vladimir Putin and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, but said theirs “was the worst call by far”.
The call had been scheduled to last an hour but the Post said Trump cut it short after 25 minutes when Turnbull tried to turn to other subjects, such as Syria. It also said Trump described the plan as “the worst deal ever” and accused Australia of trying to export the “next Boston bombers”.
Turnbull would not comment on the contents of the call other than to say he believed the resettlement deal remained in place.
“These conversations are conducted candidly, frankly, privately. If you see reports of them, I’m not going to add to them,” he told reporters in Melbourne.
The Washington Post report was widely seen as embarrassing for Turnbull, whose conservative Liberal-National coalition has a razor-thin majority after an inconclusive election last year.
“Mr Turnbull needs to confirm or deny the accuracy of that report,” Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten told reporters in Perth.
The Washington Post also quoted the official read-out after Saturday’s call, which emphasised “the enduring strength and closeness of the US-Australia relationship that is critical for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and globally’.
It also said Trump had boasted to Turnbull about the size of his election victory.