Washington/Sydney – US President Donald Trump on Wednesday slammed what he called a “dumb deal” with Australia to take hundreds of refugees from Australian-run detention facilities on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
“Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!” he said in a late night tweet.
The deal would see the US take 1,250 refugees currently languishing on the Pacific islands in off-shore detention camps which have been condemned by UN officials and human rights groups for their living conditions.
The tweet came just days after Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reported that Trump had agreed to honour the commitment in a telephone call on Saturday.
It also followed hours after the “Washington Post” newspaper reported that Trump had used that conversation to blast Turnbull over the deal.
A file photo of US President Donald Trump speaking on the phone with the Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull in the Oval Office on January 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Credit Image: © Pete Marovich/CNP via ZUMA Wire)
Trump allegedly said the telephone conversation was “the worst call by far” of the five he had held that day with other world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
He complained it was the “worst deal ever,” that he was “going to get killed” politically and accused Australia of trying to export the “next Boston bombers.”
Turnbull on Thursday refused to confirm or deny the “Washington Post” report, saying, “I am not going to comment on these reports out of the US about the conversation.
“It’s better that these conversations are conducted candidly, frankly, privately,” he told reporters in Melbourne. “I can assure you the relationship is very strong.
“The fact we received the assurance we did, the fact that it was confirmed, the very extensive engagement we have with the new administration, underlines the closeness of the alliance.”
Turnbull announced about the deal in November, just one week after Trump won the US election. Since then, Australian officials have been desperately trying to lobby senior Trump advisors to stick to it.
The “Washington Post” also quoted a senior US official as saying that Trump had told the Australian prime minister that it was his “intention” to honour the refugee deal, a phrase which would leave the president wiggle room to back out of the deal in the future.
The call, supposed to be an hour long, was abruptly ended after 25 minutes by Trump when Turnbull apparently suggested they move on and talk about foreign affairs, including the conflict in Syria.
Last week Trump announced an executive order banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. A large number of those in the camps are from those countries, including Iran, Iraq and Syria.
A special provision in the order allowed for exceptions to honour “a pre-existing international agreement,” a line that was reportedly inserted to cover the refugee deal with Australia.
On Tuesday, Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, said the one-off deal would go ahead after “extreme vetting,” but soon after a White House official told media that the US president was “still considering whether or not he will move forward with this deal at this time.”
In a statement on Thursday, the US embassy in Canberra said that Trump’s decision “to honour the refugee agreement has not changed and Spokesman Spicer’s comments stand.”
Australia has been one of America’s staunchest allies since World War II. The two countries cooperate on defence and espionage matters and share intelligence extensively with each other. They have been involved in several wars together in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Last month, Turnbull suffered a major policy blow after Trump announced the withdrawal from 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which Australia had touted as “a gigantic foundation stone” for the economy.