Forget the unsourced stories in the US media. Donald Trump himself has tweeted what he really thinks about taking refugees held on Manus Island and Nauru off our hands.
In this most unconventional of presidents we have his Twitter word for it:
Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2017
It sounds a long way from the Prime Minister’s assurances that he was personally told by the President last weekend that he would “honour the deal”.
(Donald Trump has on early Friday morning (AEDT) made more sensational comments about the Australia-US alliance and the refugee deal, read about it here.)
Malcolm Turnbull clearly over-egged it. He omitted to tell us that Trump merely had “the intention to honour it”.
The Australian public was given nothing of the phone conversation’s atmospherics. Now, we can see it would have been more accurate to say the agreement has ‘a snowball’s chance in hell’ of ever being completed.
Mind you, our Prime Minister was not alone in misreading the President. His press secretary Sean Spicer and the State Department, all on the record, made the same mistake.
Privately, the Australian government is furious, flummoxed and incredulous.
“Clearly the White House is a shambles,” one senior Turnbull staffer told The New Daily through gritted teeth.
Supporting that view were the “off the record” briefings given within hours of Spicer’s on-camera briefing. Someone in the West Wing, almost certainly the President, thought he had gone too far.
Throughout the Trump tantrum – two US outlets CNN and The Washington Post report the President was yelling at Turnbull and cut the call short – the Prime Minister kept his cool.
“He was utterly professional,” I was told, clearly in complete contrast with his interlocutor.
The real danger for Turnbull here is that the US media has jumped on the story. Trump’s shock jock friends are sure not to be far behind urging him to kill it off.
Their logic would be lamentably irrefutable: “You won’t take these people, why should we?”
Trump wants something
Trump’s view, according to the Washington Post, was the deal was the “worst he had ever seen”. Apart from the possibility that we might be sending him “the next Boston bomber” it wasn’t a deal because he was getting nothing in return.
Even now the Australian government insists there was no people swap. Somehow the suggestion we would take refugees from camps in Puerto Rico is lost in a fog of confusion or obfuscation.
Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will have to further calibrate their rhetoric around this “agreement”.
Not that Bishop will need much convincing. Recently returned from the United States she has no illusions about the unpredictability, if not the outright flakiness, of the new outfit in Washington.
If even one refugee makes it to America after the “extreme vetting”, Trump will want something in return. What? The mind boggles. Our navy testing Beijing in the South China Sea? More troops in the Middle East?
Labor’s Bill Shorten says the Trump version of the weekend phone call is very different from the Turnbull one. He’s calling for the PM to come clean with the Australian people.
Turnbull wisely isn’t saying very much. He refuses to confirm or deny the American reports.
He told reporters: “I’m not going to comment on a conversation between myself and the President of the United States other than what we have said publicly, and you can surely understand the reasons for that.”
He says he always represents Australia’s national interest, but “it’s better these conversations are conducted candidly, frankly, privately. If you’ll see reports of them, I’m not going to add to them”.
The Turnbull deal with President Barack Obama was a humanitarian breakthrough. But in President Trump we have a leader more than willing to take a leaf out of our “deterrence through cruelty” playbook.
Australia has more than met its match. It’s time for our humanitarian sentiments to be repatriated. The 2000 hapless souls on Nauru and Manus cannot be allowed to languish indefinitely in our name.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno