US placates Australia after testy phone call

WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump dispatched two top advisers to reassure Australia's ambassador of American support for a decades-old alliance, a day after reports emerged of his criticism of a refugee resettlement deal in a heated phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Steve Bannon expressed the President's admiration for the Australian people during the meeting with envoy Joe Hockey, according to a White House official.

Yesterday, in an apparent effort to mend fences, Mr Trump tweeted: "Thank you to Prime Minister of Australia for telling the truth about our very civil conversation that fake news media lied about. Very nice!"

Mr Turnbull had said on Thursday that the phone conversation ended "courteously".

Australia has long been a close Washington ally and has supported the United States in most conflicts since World War II.

Mr Trump had earlier blasted the plan for the US to resettle more than 1,000 refugees being held by Australia in offshore camps, an arrangement that was negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama and Mr Turnbull. In a late-night tweet, he called it a "dumb deal".

On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that Mr Trump berated Mr Turnbull in a Jan 28 phone call when discussing the deal.

The President told Mr Turnbull he had spoken to four other global leaders that day, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that "this was the worst call by far", the paper reported, citing unidentified US officials. The tone of the call was criticised within Mr Trump's own Republican Party.

Mr Trump told business leaders in Washington later on Thursday that "I love Australia as a country", and when a "previous administration does something, you have to respect that". Still, he continued to question the deal, saying "we have to be treated fairly".

Mr Turnbull said in a radio interview yesterday that he expects Mr Trump to honour the deal.

At a White House briefing on Thursday, spokesman Sean Spicer indicated that the US would agree to take the refugees, who have been languishing in island camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, some of them for years. Still the people, mainly from war-torn nations like Iran and Iraq, would be subject to "a very, very extreme vetting process", he said.

While Mr Spicer said Mr Trump had "tremendous respect" for the Prime Minister, the press secretary also twice mispronounced Mr Turnbull's name as "Trunbull".

This came a week after a White House statement mistakenly referred to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop as the "Australian Foreign Prime Minister".

Also yesterday, China announced that its Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit Australia next week, raising the prospect of stronger bilateral ties as the US President unsettles the global diplomatic landscape.

Mr Wang will travel to Australia and New Zealand from Tuesday to Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said during a press briefing.

Mr Lu called the trip "a full demonstration of the importance China attaches" to relations with Australia. Though such visits are often planned well in advance, the announcement coincided with the fallout from the phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Turnbull.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2017, with the headline 'US placates Australia after testy phone call'. Print Edition | Subscribe