3 Feb 2017

Trump defends comments on Australia refugee deal

9:32 am on 3 February 2017

US President Donald Trump has toned down his comments on the Australia refugee deal he yesterday described as "dumb" but still appears no closer to finalising it.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull  (left) and US President Donald Trump.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (left) and US President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP

The deal to take refugees from Manus Island and Nauru was brokered between the federal government and the US in the closing weeks of the Obama administration.

"I have a lot of respect for Australia, I love Australia as a country but we have a problem," he said.

"For whatever reason Obama said that they were going to take probably well over a thousand illegal immigrants who were in prisons and they were going to bring them and take them into this country and I said why.

"I just wanted to ask a question of you - why? 1250 - it could be 2000, it could be more than that," he said, questioning the number of refugees covered by the agreement.

"I said why, why are we doing this. What is the purpose? So we will see what happens.

"You know a previous administration does something, you have to respect that, but you can also say: why are we doing this? That is why we are in the jams that we are in."

America had some "wonderful allies" but needed to be treated fairly, Mr Trump said.

"This administration our allegiance will be to the American workers and businesses."

It was yesterday reported Mr Trump accused the Prime Minister of seeking to export the "next Boston bombers" to the US, and complained that the deal was going to kill him politically, during a 25-minute phone call between the two leaders.

Mr Trump's press secretary Sean Spicer earlier in the week said the deal would move forward, but it would be subject to "extreme vetting".

Within hours, senior officials said Mr Trump was unhappy with the deal and was still considering whether to move ahead with it.

Tough phone calls? 'Don't worry about it'

Yesterday the Washington Post reported the President had a tense call with Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Mr Spicer had described the tone of the discussions between Mr Turnbull and Mr Trump as "cordial".

It was then revealed Mr Trump abruptly ended the phone call with Mr Turnbull regarding the deal, calling the conversation "the worst by far" in a day that included calls with a clutch of world leaders.

Mr Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast this morning that people should not be concerned about strongly-worded phone calls between world leaders like himself and Malcolm Turnbull.

"When you hear about the tough phone calls I'm having, don't worry about it. Just don't worry about it," he said.

"We're tough. We have to be tough. We're taken advantage of by virtually every nation in the world. It's not going to happen any more."

In reaction to the Washington Post leak, House speaker Paul Ryan has said Australians should not be concerned about the relationship between the two countries while Senator John McCain has reportedly called Australian ambassador Joe Hockey to express his support for the relationship with Australia.

Turnbull denies being hung up on

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

Mr Turnbull declined to confirm the Post report that Mr Trump, who has spoken to world leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, had angrily told him that the call was "the worst so far."

Political analysts said such acrimony was unprecedented, surpassing even the difficult relations between former US 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.

As reports of the phone conversation made headlines on both sides of the world, Mr 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."

The tweets threw more confusion about the status of the controversial deal that Australia made with former President Barack Obama late last year.

The United States would resettle up to 1250 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.

- ABC / Reuters

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