Reported acrimonious Trump phone call strains Australia-U.S. ties

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 01, 2017 10:55 PM

By Jane Wardell and Roberta Rampton

SYDNEY/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. ties with staunch ally Australia turned strained on Thursday after reports of an acrimonious phone call between the two leaders emerged and U.S. President Donald Trump said a deal between the two nations on refugees was "dumb."

Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke for about 25 minutes on Saturday, but the call ended abruptly after Trump panned a bilateral resettlement deal on refugees, the Washington Post reported. Trump accused Australia of trying to export the "next Boston bombers" and said the call was the worst he had had with world leaders thus far, according to the newspaper.

The Post, citing unidentified senior U.S. officials, was first to report details of the weekend call, which came at the end of day of widespread protests and confusion over Trump's order for a 120-day halt of the U.S. refugee program and a 90-day suspension on visits from people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

The apparent breakdown between Washington and Canberra that has developed over the resettlement deal could have serious repercussions. Australia and the United States are among the five nations that make up the Five Eyes group, the world's leading intelligence-sharing network.

Under the Australia deal set with former President Barack Obama last year, the United States 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.

Many of the people being held in the Australian detention centers, which have drawn harsh criticism from the United Nations and rights groups, fled violence in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on Thursday that Trump was "unbelievably disappointed" and "extremely, extremely upset" with the deal, but said it would go ahead.

Spicer said all the refugees presented to the United States would be subject to "extreme vetting" to ensure they do not pose security risks.

Turnbull told reporters he was surprised and disappointed that details of the call with Trump had been leaked but gave few particulars other than to deny reports Trump had hung up on him.

“As far as the call is concerned, the report that the president hung up is not correct. The call ended courteously. And as far as the nature of the discussion, it was very frank and forthright," he told a Sydney radio station on Thursday.

"I make Australia’s case as powerfully and persuasively as I can, wherever I am," he said.

As reports of the phone conversation made headlines on both sides of the world, Trump tweeted shortly before midnight in Washington: "Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal."

UNPRECEDENTED ACRIMONY

Political analysts said the acrimony between the two countries was unprecedented, surpassing even the difficult relations between former U.S. President Richard Nixon and then-Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who withdrew the country's troops during the Vietnam War.

"Even that was always done in the language of foreign policy niceties," said Harry Phillips, a political analyst of 40 years experience at Edith Cowan and Curtin universities in Perth.

Australia, New Zealand and the United States have been allies under a formal security treaty since 1951. They co-operate on military matters in the Pacific region, although today the treaty is taken to relate to conflicts worldwide.

The United States plans to send extra military aircraft to Australia's tropical north this year as part of a U.S. Marines deployment that will bolster its military presence close to the disputed South China Sea.

Australia is also one of 10 U.S. allies purchasing Lockheed Martin's <LMT.N> F-35 fighter jet program.

Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, said the conversation could damage the alliance. "Australia is one of the strongest friends we have, and our common interest in fighting terror and confronting Chinese aggression binds us ever closer."

John McCain, the powerful Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he called Australia's U.S. ambassador on Thursday to express his unwavering support for the military alliance between the two nations.

Trump, attending a national prayer breakfast in Washington on Thursday, said he was involved in "tough phone calls" on the immigration issue, though he did not name Australia or its leader by name.

"Believe me, when you hear about the tough phone calls I'm having - don't worry about it," Trump said. "We're going to be a little tough, folks. We're taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually."

(Additional reporting by Eric Walsh, Susan Heavey and Ayesha Rascoe in Washington and Colin Packham in Sydney; Writing by Jane Wardell and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Paul Tait and Jeffrey Benkoe)