Transcripts detail Trump’s contentious calls
President Donald Trump engaged in contentious telephone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia in his early days in office, pressing them to make concessions to satisfy his own domestic political needs in exchanges so sharp that he said talking to President Vladimir Putin of Russia was more pleasant.
Transcripts of his calls with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia confirm previous news reports of tension during the conversations in January, just a week after Trump’s inauguration, and show a new president eager to fulfill campaign promises while developing relationships with foreign counterparts.
The transcripts, assembled from the notes of aides listening to the calls, were obtained by The Washington Post, which posted them online Thursday morning. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
With Peña Nieto, Trump repeatedly threatened to impose a stiff border tax to keep out Mexican products and complained about “pretty tough hombres” who were bringing so many drugs over the border that they had even made New Hampshire “a drug-infested den.” The biggest point of contention came as the president insisted that the Mexican president stop saying publicly he would not pay for the wall that Trump had promised to build, at Mexico’s expense, on the border between the two countries.
“If you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that,” Trump said.
The call with Turnbull was even more testy as the president complained about what he called “a disgusting deal” that Australia had sealed with President Barack Obama in which the United States agreed to consider accepting up to 1,250 economic refugees. Trump complained that he would look “so foolish” doing so after barring refugees from the rest of the world.
“I have had it,” Trump snapped toward the end of the call. “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.”
Transcripts of a president’s conversations with foreign leaders are rarely made public, and the disclosure of these may fuel Trump’s ire over unauthorized leaks. The Post did not say how it obtained them.
But the full accounts of the conversations illustrated Trump’s approach with foreign leaders: flattering his counterpart one moment, badgering him the next, always conscious of how the policies being discussed connected to his campaign promises and how they would affect his domestic political standing.
Fresh from his inauguration, he had his campaign victory on his mind, boasting to Peña Nieto that “no one got people in the rallies as big as I did” and to Turnbull that “they said I had no way to get to 270” votes in the Electoral College “and I got 306.” He buttered up Peña Nieto, telling the interpreter on their call that “he speaks better English than me,” suggesting that the Mexican president would be so popular that the Mexican people will amend their constitution to allow him to run again and declaring that “it is you and I against the world, Enrique, do not forget.”
But there was an edge to both conversations as he sought to bring his campaign platform to fruition. The talk with Peña Nieto on Jan. 27 came after the Mexican leader canceled a meeting with Trump because of their dispute over who would pay for the proposed border wall. The two never resolved that on the call, with both men clearly worried about the political effect in their own countries.
“We find this completely unacceptable for Mexicans to pay for the wall that you are thinking of building,” Peña Nieto told Trump, explaining how precarious his position was at home. “I would also like to make you understand, President Trump, the lack of margin I have as president of Mexico to accept this situation.”
Trump too was conscious of his own position. “On the wall, you and I both have political problem. My people stand up and say, ‘Mexico will pay for the wall,’ and your people probably say something in a similar but slightly different language. But the fact is we are both in a little bit of a political bind because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall. I have to. I have been talking about it for a two-year period.”
Trump suggested papering over the dispute in public comments: “We should both say, ‘We will work it out.’ It will work out in the formula somehow. As opposed to you saying, ‘We will not pay’ and me saying, ‘We will not pay.’”
Peña Nieto told Trump that he had put him in a bad position.
“You have a very big mark on our back, Mr. President, regarding who pays for the wall,” he said. “This is what I suggest, Mr. President: Let us stop talking about the wall.”
Trump’s call with Turnbull the next day, Jan. 28, proved more combative. Trump said he had been told that he had to accept refugees held by Australia on the islands of Nauru or Manus for more than three years.
“Somebody told me yesterday that close to 2,000 people are coming who are really troublesome,” he complained to Turnbull. “And I am saying, boy that will make us look awfully bad. Here I am calling for a ban where I am not letting anybody in and we take 2,000 people. Really it looks like 2,000 people that Australia does not want and I do not blame you by the way, but the United States has become like a dumping ground.”
Turnbull explained that the deal did not require the United States to take 2,000 people, but it was important for the United States to live up to its commitment.
“This is a big deal,” he said. “I think we should respect deals.”
“Who made the deal?” Trump asked. “Obama?”
“Yes,” Turnbull said, “but let me describe what it is.” The United States had agreed only to consider accepting up to 1,250 refugees, but each of them would be subject to vetting and could be rejected. The people at issue were economic refugees, mainly from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, he said, not criminals or terrorists.
“Why haven’t you let them out?” Trump demanded. “Why have you not let them into your society?”
“It is not because they are bad people,” Turnbull said. “It is because in order to stop people-smugglers, we have to deprive them of the product.”
Australia by policy, he said, refuses to accept refugees who arrive by boat because it would encourage smugglers to keep charging desperate people to bring them there.
“That is a good idea,” Trump said. “We should do that too. You are worse than I am.”
Turnbull implored the president to abide by the agreement.
“I am asking you as a very good friend. This is a big deal. It is really, really important to us that we maintain it.”
“Malcolm, why is this so important?” Trump said. “I do not understand. This is going to kill me. I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country.” Going along with the deal “puts me in a bad position. It makes me look so bad and I have only been here a week,” he said.
Turnbull repeated that it was only 1,250 people and each of them subject to vetting.
“I will be honest with you, I hate taking these people,” Trump said. “I guarantee you they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now. They are not going to be wonderful people who go on to work for the local milk people.”
“I would not be so sure about that,” Turnbull said.
“Well, maybe you should let them out of prison. I am doing this because Obama made a bad deal.”
“But I can say to you, there is nothing more important in business or politics than a deal is a deal,” Turnbull said.
“This is a stupid deal,” Trump said. “This deal will make me look terrible.”
“Mr. President, I think this will make you look like a man who stands by the commitments of the United States.”
Trump was not buying it. “OK, this shows me to be a dope,” he said. “I am not like this but if I have to do it, I will do it, but I do not like this at all.”
President Donald Trump speaks to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in a Jan. 28 call. Trump fumed at what he called “a disgusting deal” on refugees that Australia sealed with President Barack Obama.