United States President Donald Trump told Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that when it came to dealing with refugees, “You are worse than I am”.
The comment was part of the now infamous first phone call between the two leaders in January, as revealed in a leaked transcript of the conversation published by The Washington Post.
In the first days of Mr Trump’s administration, Mr Turnbull was seeking an assurance from the new president that a deal struck with the previous Obama administration would be honoured. The deal involved the US accepting for settlement some 1,250 refugees from the controversial Australian managed detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.
In the call Mr Trump, who campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, complained that the deal was “a horrible deal, a disgusting deal” that would “make me look terrible”.
According to the leaked transcript, the Australian PM appears to try to gain Mr Trump’s agreement by suggesting that the deal meant the US was only bound to the assessment process, not the actual taking in of the refugees.
“You can decide to take 1,000 or 100. It is entirely up to you,” said Mr Turnbull.
“The obligation is to only go through the process.”
Mr Trump protested that the refugees in question may be terrorists, saying, “I guarantee you they are bad”.
“I do not want to have more San Bernardinos or World Trade Centres,” he said, according to the transcript.
To which Mr Turnbull tried to assure the president that they were “not in that league”.
“They are basically economic refugees from Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan,” Mr Turnbull tells Mr Trump, assuring the president,”They have been under our supervision for over three years now and we know exactly everything about them.”
When asked by Mr Trump why then Australia would not be settling the refugees, Mr Turnbull said the Australian government’s hardline policy on refugees attempting to enter the country by boat was about stopping the people smuggling trade, rather than denying entry to asylum seekers per se, and there we no exceptions to the rule.
“Even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Nobel Prize-winning genius, we will not let you in,” Mr Turnbull said about refugees arriving by boat.
“That is a good idea,” Mr Trump says.
“We should do that too. You are worse than I am.”
According to the transcript, the prime minister suggests that Australia would reciprocate with the deal.
“We will take anyone that you want us to take,” Mr Turnbull says.
“We would rather take a not very attractive guy that helps you out than to take a Nobel Peace Prize winner that comes by boat.”
Around the same time that the deal was struck with the Obama administration for the US to take the Manus and Nauru refugees, Australia agreed to take a number of refugees from Central America. The Turnbull government has denied that the two deals were interdependent.
Towards the end of the call, the president protests that accepting the deal will make him look like “a weak and ineffective leader”.
“You can certainly say that it was not a deal that you would have done, but you are going to stick with it,” Mr Turnbull insists.
“I have no choice to say that about it,” Mr Trump replies.
“Malcom [sic], I am going to say that I have no choice but to honor my predecessor’s deal. I think it is a horrible deal, a disgusting deal that I would have never made. It is an embarrassment to the United States of America and you can say it just the way I said it. I will say it just that way,” he says.
“As far as I am concerned that is enough Malcom [sic]. I have had it. I have been making these calls all day and this is the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous.”
Mr Turnbull thanks Mr Trump and assures the president that he will be there for him “again and again” in future, before they end the call.