To hear Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tell it earlier this week, his call with President Donald Trump on Saturday had ended with assurance that the United States would uphold its end of a refugee deal crafted during his predecessor’s last days in office.
But a Washington Post report Wednesday night, alleging Trump had instead hung up on the Australian leader after a harsh exchange, had the nation’s papers lamenting a possible breakdown in the historically close relationship between both countries.
The Post reported that, contrary to Turnbull’s assertion that the United States would honor the Obama-era agreement to resettle 1,250 refugees, Trump had instead slammed Turnbull for trying to push the deal through. Senior U.S. officials who were briefed about the call told the Post that Trump bragged about his electoral win and told Turnbull that their call “was the worst call by far” he had held that day with a foreign leader.
Then, 25 minutes into what was a scheduled hour-long call, Trump reportedly hung up the phone, according to the Post.
In a column, the Sydney Morning Herald’s chief political correspondent Mark Kenny described Trump as “the Mad King: volatile, vainglorious, and untrustworthy. Turnbull is right to handle him with kid gloves.”
“American prestige is on the line,” Kenny wrote. “World leaders be warned: Trump's conversations are not private and his word, unreliable.”
Other papers were similarly aghast: The Australian declared that the nation’s alliance with America “has hit its lowest point in decades.” The Canberra Times ran a story comparing Australia to Mexico, China and Iran: “other countries to feel [Trump’s] social media fury.”
On Australian Twitter, Turnbull and Trump were both the top trending topics in Canberra, the nation’s capital.
The deal that so enraged Trump would resettle fewer than 2,000 refugees who had tried to reach Australia’s shores, and only after an extensive vetting process. They are currently being held on Nauru and Manus, two islands in the Pacific, where advocacy groups have said the detention facilities are inhumane.
But Australia’s leader hesitated to criticized Trump’s allegedly contemptuous behavior Saturday. Turnbull told the Associated Press after the Washington Post’s report was published that "it's better that these things — these conversations — are conducted candidly, frankly, privately.”
He declined to elaborate on the specifics of his call, but stressed that the Australian-U.S. relationship was still “very strong.”
"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,” he added to the Associated Press. “But as Australians know me very well: I stand up for Australia in every forum — public or private."
Australia’s former foreign minister Bob Carr sought to spin the rocky call to Australia’s advantage, telling ABC TV’s 7.30 that the country had to be “practical” about its relationship with America.
“America is different, America has changed,” he said, according to the Herald Sun. Though “everyone supports this alliance in Australia… it’s not the be all and end all of Australia’s international character. That’s the point I’m making.”
Turnbull had expressed cautious optimism after Trump’s election in November that the two would be able to cooperate, remarking on their similarities as “businessmen who found our way into politics somewhat later in life.”
But Trump seemed unlikely to backtrack on the reportedly angry stance he sketched out in Saturday’s call, taking to Twitter Wednesday night to tweet his continued disapproval of the refugee agreement.
“Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia,” he wrote. “Why? I will study this dumb deal!”
At the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday morning, Trump again acknowledged “the tough phone calls I’m having,” but told the audience not to worry.
“It’s time we’re going to be a little tough, folks,” he said. “We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world virtually. It’s not going to happen anymore.”