American politics increasingly feels like a novel whose events are retold by two unreliable narrators, Trump being one and the media being the other. The truth, or something close to it, is in there somewhere between the two of them. But where? Case in point: After a lot of media heavy-breathing yesterday about Trump telling Mexico’s president he might have to use cross-border force to stop “bad hombres,” CNN came through with this much more sober version of their phone call.
According to an excerpt of the transcript of the call with Peña Nieto provided to CNN, Trump said, “You have some pretty tough hombres in Mexico that you may need help with. We are willing to help with that big-league, but they have be knocked out and you have not done a good job knocking them out.”
Trump made an offer to help Peña Nieto with the drug cartels.
Not a military threat, just an offer of military assistance, however untactfully relayed. Bearing that in mind, where does the truth lie in WaPo’s account of Trump’s conversation with Aussie PM Malcolm Turnbull?
President Trump blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a refugee agreement and boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win, according to senior U.S. officials briefed on the Saturday exchange. Then, 25 minutes into what was expected to be an hour-long call, Trump abruptly ended it.
At one point, Trump informed Turnbull that he had spoken with four other world leaders that day — including Russian President Vladimir Putin — and that “this was the worst call by far.”…
“This is the worst deal ever,” Trump fumed as Turnbull attempted to confirm that the United States would honor its pledge to take in 1,250 refugees from an Australian detention center.
Trump, who one day earlier had signed an executive order temporarily barring the admission of refugees, complained that he was “going to get killed” politically and accused Australia of seeking to export the “next Boston bombers.”
The first sign that WaPo’s account is unreliable would be a series of stern denials by both sides — but interestingly, those are absent in this case. The NYT’s story, citing “a senior Trump administration official,” corroborates the last paragraph above about the Boston bombers and claims that the call “ended abruptly after Mr. Turnbull told the president it was necessary for the refugees to be accepted.” CNN also hears that the call was contentious and that Turnbull reminded Trump that the deal to accept 1,250 refugees is contingent upon each of them passing scrutiny by U.S. refugee vetters. Anyone who misses the cut wouldn’t be sent to the U.S. (CNN also notes that Trump was tired after a long day of phone calls with other world leaders, which sounds pretty … low-energy.) Turnbull was grilled about all of this earlier today by Australia’s press and pointedly didn’t deny the Post’s reporting. All he said was that private conversations are best kept private and that Trump had agreed to honor the refugee deal, however unhappy he may be about it. (Turnbull did say that Trump hadn’t hung up on him.) That was his best effort to smooth over the flap between the two countries. And then Trump picked up his phone and dropped this:
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
Doesn’t sound to me like he’s agreed to honor the deal.
Three obvious questions here. One: Of all the countries on Earth, why would he pick a fight with Australia, arguably America’s most loyal ally and a key strategic partner in the Pacific? Trump has already signaled in his travel-ban order that he might be willing to accept up to 50,000 refugees globally this year, as Conor Friedersdorf notes. Australia’s 1,250 are a drop in the bucket. The Aussies are already nervous about their position within China’s expanding sphere of influence and they just had the rug pulled out from under them on trade when Trump tore up TPP. Does Trump want Australia to be neutral between the United States and China? What on earth for?
Two: How much time will Rex Tillerson, assorted members of Trump’s inner circle, and various foreign-policy players in the Senate spend over the next four years massaging allies after Trump has some needless blow-up with them? McCain reportedly phoned Australia’s ambassador after the news broke about his chat with Turnbull to reaffirm America’s commitment to the relationship. A lot of calls are going to be made like that over the next four years, nudging diplomats abroad to take Trump neither seriously nor literally. In fact…
Source familiar with Trump foreign leader calls says the POTUS convos are turning faces "white" inside the WH.
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) February 2, 2017
Which brings us to question three: Who leaked this to the Post? There can’t be many people so high up the chain inside the White House that they’d be privy to Trump’s phone calls with world leaders. It’s tempting to blame the Australians, but as noted, the Times cites a “senior Trump administration official.” Why are people of that caliber whispering to newspapers, knowing the damage this will do to him? Is this mysterious official another holdover from the Obama administration, a la Sally Yates, or is this some mainstream Republican appointee a la Reince Priebus who doesn’t like how business is being done by the pugnacious Bannon wing and is trying to undercut them?
Here’s Kellyanne Conway being asked about leaks.