Australian PM describes frank call with Trump after Post reports angry exchange

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Thursday he had spoken candidly and frankly with U.S. President Donald Trump, but would not confirm a Washington Post report that Trump had berated him over a refugee swap deal and cut the call short.

The Post report said Trump had described the call with the leader of Australia, one of the United States’ staunchest allies, as “the worst so far”. It came less than a day after Washington had sewn confusion in Australia after saying it would apply “extreme vetting” as part of the resettlement deal.

The deal was agreed late last year between Australia, which has fought alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the administration of former President Barack Obama.

As part of the deal, Washington 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.

Quoting unidentified senior U.S. officials briefed on the conversation, the Post reported that Trump had told Turnbull he had spoken to four other world leaders on Saturday, including Russian president Vladimir Putin and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, but said theirs “was the worst call by far”.

The call had been scheduled to last an hour but the Post said Trump cut it short after 25 minutes when Turnbull tried to turn to other subjects, such as Syria. It also said Trump described the plan as “the worst deal ever” and accused Australia of trying to export the “next Boston bombers”.

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 Washington Post 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.

The resettlement deal was thrown into confusion after Trump signed an executive order last week that suspended the U.S. refugee programme and restricted entry to the United States for travellers from majority-Muslim countries such as Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

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

The Washington Post also quoted the official read-out after Saturday’s call, which emphasised “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’.

It also said Trump had boasted to Turnbull about the size of his election victory.

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