NEWS

Donald Trump 'Gave Malcolm Turnbull The Finger' During Tense Phone Call With Australian PM

Australians have been transfixed by the unfolding drama.

02/02/2017 08:35 | Updated 02 February 2017

Donald Trump has sent Australians into meltdown after contradicting their Prime Minister’s version of events regarding a phone call between the pair on Saturday.

Malcolm Turnbull insisted on Wednesday that their relationship was “very strong” and a refugee deal had been made that “underlines the closeness of the alliance”.

He added: “I stand up for Australia in every forum - public or private.”

Eduardo Munoz / Reuters
Australian PM, Malcolm Turnbull.

Despite the two countries being staunch allies, Trump immediately undermined Turnbull by venting on Twitter. 

Trump is also reported to have bragged about the size of his electoral college win during the conversation on Saturday.

The White House tweeted a picture of the call but a closer examination in light of the new details shows one intriguing detail.

Turnbull had told reporters the strength of the relationship between the two nations was evident in the fact Trump had agreed to honour a deal made by the Obama administration late last year.

Under the terms of the deal, the US would re-settle up to 1,250 asylum seeking, most of whom are held in processing camps on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Australia has refused to accept them and instead pays for them to be housed on the impoverished islands.

In return, Australia would take refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. 

But the Washington Post reported an angry Trump had actually dubbed the agreement “the worst deal ever” and accused Turnbull of seeking to export the “next Boston bombers” - a reference to Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, US citizens born in Kyrgyzstan, who set off two bombs at the 2013 Boston marathon.

Australians - accustomed to the friendly relationship they have long enjoyed with the US - were transfixed by the drama.

The Washington Post story on the phone call shot to the top of the nation’s trending topics on Twitter, and was plastered across the top of Australia’s major news sites, reports the Press Association.

The country’s news networks launched running commentaries on it, debating how Turnbull should respond and what the spat meant for the future of the longtime allies’ relationship. 

Turnbull said at a news conference following the Post report that he wouldn’t talk about his call with Trump, saying it was “better these conversations are conducted candidly, frankly [and] privately.”

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

There have been mixed messages from Washington all week on the state of the agreement.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer confirmed on Wednesday that Trump had agreed to honour 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 told the ABC that “Trump hates this deal.”

Opposition leader Bill Shorten called on Turnbull to be open about his interaction with 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.

Turnbull has likened himself to 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 Trump for agreeing to honour the refugee deal.

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