Down and Out Down Under

Australia’s Uneasy American Alliance

G'day: Trump and Turnbull in New York, May 2017 Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

In late January, just days after taking office, U.S. President Donald Trump sat down in the Oval Office for his first official call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Seated around the Resolute Desk with Trump were Michael Flynn, then Trump’s national security adviser; Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist; and Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary. It should not have been a difficult or fractious exchange: it was an introductory conversation with the leader of the United States’ most reliable ally, the only country to fight beside the United States in every major conflict of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

But instead of a friendly discussion, the exchange was “hostile and charged,” according to senior U.S. officials speaking to The Washington Post. Trump “boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win” and “blasted” Turnbull over a refugee-transfer agreement that Australia had reached with the Obama administration. He told Turnbull, “This was the worst call by far,” and then abruptly ended it after just 25 minutes, less than halfway through the allotted hour. Trump later tweeted about the refugee agreement, promising to “study this dumb deal.”

Reports of the call struck like a lightning bolt on the Australian political scene. No one was surprised to learn that Trump had a poor telephone manner. But what were Australians to make of the fact that on the same day that Trump had a warm, hour-long call with Russian President Vladimir Putin—an opponent of the liberal order and an adversary of the United States—he treated their prime minister with disrespect? Some thought that Turnbull had been unwise to broach the refugee issue at all, given Trump’s statements on immigration. Nevertheless, Australians of all persuasions concluded that Trump’s behavior had been both appalling and revealing.

Australians are not delicate flowers. They have been known to use rough language. The problem was not the phone call itself but what it represented. It crystallized broader concerns about Trump’s

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