U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly squared off with his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull during what he said was the “worst call by far” when the leaders discussed a refugee agreement between their countries.
According to reports, the conversation that took place last weekend was more “hostile” than cordial as previously indicated, with Trump allegedly yelling at Turnbull and hanging up the phone after 25 minutes. The phone call was originally expected to last an hour.
Washington Post, citing information from sources and unnamed U.S. officials, reported that Trump even told Turnbull at one point that he had already spoken with four other leaders that day and that theirs was “the worst call by far”.
During the call, the recently inaugurated president apparently fumed as Turnbull pressed for commitment to the deal for the U.S. to take in 1,250 refugees from an Australian detention center. It was only a day earlier that Trump signed the controversial executive order to temporarily bar admissions of refugees.
According to WP, Trump said he was “going to get killed” politically if the U.S. honoured the deal made during the Obama administration. He also accused Australia of seeking to export the “next Boston bombers.”
“This is the worst deal ever,” he reportedly said.
Although U.S. officials said he had similar conversation with leaders of other countries, including neighbouring Mexico, his treatment of Turnbull was striking because of the strong U.S.-Australia ties, especially in military operations and intelligence sharing in the past.
The White House, however, has issued statements that appear to be at odds with the hostile nature of the conversation, emphasising among others “the enduring strength and closeness of the U.S.-Australia relationship that is critical for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and globally.”
When pressed for a confirmation, a White House spokesman declined to comment, but a senior government official said the conversation was “hostile” and “charged”.
Earlier this week, the U.S. said it would apply “extreme vetting” to the asylum seekers it agreed to resettle in the deal with Australia.
The agreement was first reached late last year between the Turnbull and Obama administrations. In the deal, it was agreed that Washington would resettle refugees, mainly from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, held in Australia’s processing centres on remote Pacific islands in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Australia will in return resettle refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Last Friday, Trump inked an executive order putting a four-month moratorium on refugee resettlement in his country. The order also banned travel from citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations namely Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, casting doubt over the deal with Australia.
Despite the restrictions, Trump told Australia the U.S. would honour its agreement to resettle the refugees.
Some 1,161 men, women and children remain in indefinite detention in Manus Island and Nauru as of Nov 30, 2016, the most recent data from Australia’s Department of Immigration shows.
Another 1,000 or so people are in detention in Australia, some of them asylum seekers transported to Australia for medical treatment from Manus Island and Nauru.
It is not clear how many of these would be eligible under the deal with the United States.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials have begun assessing the asylum seekers, although there is no timeline for resettlement.
Australia’s hardline immigration policy is a contentious issue that has drawn international condemnation from the United Nations and other rights groups, but which remains popular at home and has bipartisan political support.
In response to reports over the so-called hostile exchange with Trump, Turnbull on Thursday said he had spoken “candidly” and “frankly” with his U.S. counterpart, but did not confirm WP’s report that Trump had berated him over the refugee swap deal and cut the call short.
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 WP report received almost blanket coverage in Australian media and was widely seen as embarrassing for Turnbull, whose conservative Liberal-National coalition has only 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.
WP also said Trump had boasted to Turnbull about the size of his election victory.
Additional reporting by Reuters