In a remarkable and unprecedented collapse of confidentiality and decorum between Australia and the United States, President Donald Trump has backed away from any deal with the Turnbull government to resettle refugees from Manus Island and Nauru — and the White House has leaked extraordinary and embarrassing details of an abruptly terminated phone call between the two leaders on Sunday.

After days of assuring the media that Trump had agreed to honour the Obama administration’s deal with Turnbull to take approximately 1250 refugees out of Australia’s offshore processing camps, the government found itself humiliated when Trump, this afternoon (Australian time), tweeted

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

Despite the government’s assurances, doubt had been repeatedly cast on whether a firm commitment had been secured, with mixed signals coming from the US State Department and White House officials about whether Trump had agreed to honour it (Trump’s already-notorious spokesman Sean Spicer indicated this week it would be honoured but with “extreme vetting” of refugees), agreed only for the time being to honour it, or that a decision was yet to be made.

That didn’t prevent the Turnbull government from spinning the “agreement” as a major achievement with the new administration. In a story dropped to The Australian yesterday, it was portrayed as “a particular favour” and “a special favour to Australia” — suggesting Turnbull was securing results through quiet diplomacy despite criticism of his silence on Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the United States.

However, in a bombshell report in The Washington Post this morning, extensive details of the call between Trump and Turnbull over the deal were revealed — details that seem unlikely to have come from anyone outside the Oval Office during the call. The report suggests Trump was bitterly opposed to agreeing to honour the deal, and addressed Turnbull with overt hostility, claiming the refugee agreement was “the worst deal ever”, that he was “going to get killed” politically and that Australia was in effect sending the “next Boston bombers” to America.

Turnbull refused to comment on the report today, but background sources within the government quickly confirmed the tenor of the report to media outlets, albeit with the caveats that Trump had definitively agreed to honour the commitment by the previous administration, and the claim that the animosity during the phone call was because of Turnbull “standing up” to Trump. Even that fig leaf was torn away by Trump’s tweet, which now leaves any deal in serious doubt.

In an attempt to play down the development, Turnbull this afternoon insisted he had an agreement with Trump and dismissed Trump’s tweet as “that is his tweet”, repeated that he would not be engaging in public commentary but also insisted the call did not end abruptly but “courteously”. He also professed to be “disappointed” that the details of the call had been leaked.

In retrospect, leaking the phone call’s details to the Washington Post seems to have been a calculated White House tactic to provide distance between Trump and the refugee deal — with Trump’s tweet administering the coup de grace. The outcome is deeply humiliating for the beleaguered Turnbull, who has consistently maintained that he will not comment on Trump but instead keep his communications and views on Trump’s policies confidential.

What he failed to understand is that Trump evidently feels no such compunction — not even for a fellow conservative and Prime Minister of a loyal vassal state of the US like Australia.


Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey