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Australian PM, Trump offer mixed messages on refugee deal
FILE - In this May 8, 2016 file photo, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia. Turnbull said Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017 that U.S. President Donald Trump had agreed during a weekend telephone conversation to keep an Obama administration promise to resettle an undisclosed number of mostly Muslim refugees held on the impoverished nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. AP/Rob Griffith, File
CANBERRA, Australia — Australia's prime minister insisted Thursday that a deal struck with the Obama administration that would allow mostly Muslim refugees rejected by Australia to be resettled in the United States was still on, despite President Donald Trump dubbing the agreement "dumb" and vowing to review it.
The conflicting messages came hours after The Washington Post published a story detailing a tense exchange between Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during their first telephone call as national leaders.
The newspaper reported that during the call, an angry Trump dubbed the agreement "the worst deal ever" and accused Turnbull of seeking to export the "next Boston bombers" — a reference to Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, U.S. citizens born in Kyrgyzstan, who set off two bombs at the 2013 Boston marathon.
Turnbull declined to comment on the report, which also said Trump abruptly ended the expected hour-long conversation after 25 minutes as the Australian attempted to steer the conversation to other topics.
"It's better that these things — these conversations — are conducted candidly, frankly, privately," Turnbull told reporters. Later, however, he denied during an interview with Sky News that Trump had hung up on him, saying the conversation had ended "courteously."
Turnbull told reporters the strength of the relationship between the two nations was evident in that Trump had agreed to honor the deal to resettle refugees from among around 1,600 asylum seekers, most of whom are on island camps on the Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Australia has refused to accept them and instead pays for them to be housed on the impoverished islands.
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"I can assure you the relationship is very strong," Turnbull said. "The fact we received the assurance that we did, the fact that it was confirmed, the very extensive engagement we have with the new administration underlines the closeness of the alliance. But as Australians know me very well: I stand up for Australia in every forum — public or private."
Yet shortly after Turnbull made those comments to reporters, Trump took to Twitter to slam the deal.
"Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why?" Trump tweeted. "I will study this dumb deal!"
Australians — accustomed to the friendly relationship they have long enjoyed with the U.S. — were transfixed by the drama. The Washington Post story shot to the top of the nation's trending topics on Twitter, and was plastered across the top of Australia's major news sites.
The country's news networks launched running commentaries on it, debating how Turnbull should respond and what the spat meant for the future of the longtime allies' relationship.
Trump, who a day before the conversation with Turnbull had signed an executive order suspending the admission of refugees, complained during the call that he was "going to get killed" politically by the deal, the newspaper reported, citing anonymous officials.
"I don't want these people," Trump reportedly said. Trump also told Turnbull that he had spoken to four world leaders that day and that: "This is the worst call by far."
Trump told Turnbull that it was "my intention" to honor the agreement, a phrase designed to leave the president wriggle room to back out of the deal, the newspaper reported.
There have been mixed messages from Washington all week on the state of the agreement.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer confirmed on Wednesday that Trump had agreed to honor the deal.
But a White House statement sent to Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Thursday said: "The president is still considering whether or not he will move forward with this deal at this time."
The U.S. State Department said in a statement later Thursday that the United States would honor the agreement "out of respect for close ties to our Australian ally and friend."
"President Trump's decision to honor the refugee agreement has not changed and Spokesman Spicer's comments stand," the State Department said.
The ABC spoke to senior Australian government sources who said The Washington Post report was "substantially accurate."
Australian officials said the conversation was "robust" and "shorter than expected," while one minister told the ABC that "Trump hates this deal."
Opposition leader Bill Shorten called on Turnbull to be open about his interaction with Trump, saying The Washington Post version of the call was worrying.
"We shouldn't be finding out about what's happening to Australian policy through the news of foreign countries," Shorten said.
Turnbull has likened himself to Trump in that both are wealthy businessmen who came to politics late in life. Turnbull also has a reputation for blunt conversation and tough negotiations behind closed doors.
Turnbull has resisted pressure this week to join other Western leaders in condemning Trump's temporary ban of immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries.
"When I have frank advice to give to an American president, I give it privately, as good friends should, as wise prime ministers do when they want to ensure they are best able to protect Australians and Australia's national interest," Turnbull told reporters on Tuesday.
Some observers suspect Turnbull has held his tongue because he is grateful to Trump for agreeing to honor the refugee deal.