Foreign relations, Trump style: president acknowledges 'tough phone calls'
by Alexander Panetta (feat. Stephen Saideman)
Feb 2, 2017
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump is making it clear he’s willing to hurt some feelings of foreign leaders by exporting the insult-flinging style he honed at home, and applying it in conversations with his international peers.
Multiple reports of frosty conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia are creating a ripple effect through world capitals as other governments wonder about the public and private scoldings potentially in store.
Trump all but confirmed the reports Thursday. He raised the issue himself, in his speech to the annual National Prayer Breakfast.
“The world is in trouble. But we’re gonna straighten it out, OK? That’s what I do. I fix things,” he said.
“When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it. They’re tough. We have to be tough. it’s time we’re gonna be a little tough, folks. We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually. It’s not gonna happen anymore.”
Targets No. 1 and 2: the leaders of Mexico and Australia.
There’s some dispute about the wording of his call with Mexico’s Enrique Pena Nieto. The White House and Mexican government have both denied reports of the most inflammatory details from their chat last week — that Trump threatened to send U.S. troops into Mexico to fight drug gangs.
A purported transcript obtained by CNN suggested there was some truth and some exaggeration to the initial reports. It shows a bit of an insult — but no threat.
“You have some pretty tough hombres in Mexico that you may need help with,” Trump said, according to CNN’s purported transcript of the call. “We’re willing to help with that, big-league, but they have to be knocked out.
“And you have not done a good job knocking them out.”
The conversation with Malcolm Turnbull dominated headlines in Australia.
It raised consternation elsewhere, too — some commentators noted that as a conservative head of a friendly country, if there’s one foreign leader Trump might be expected to get along with, it’s Turnbull.
But Trump reportedly fumed about refugees.
The Australian government struck a deal with Barack Obama in November to transfer about 1,250 refugees currently in offshore detention centres to the U.S. After a series of calls with leaders last weekend, The Washington Post reported, Trump’s call with Turnbull got testy.
“This was the worst call by far,” the Post, citing senior officials, quotes Trump as telling his colleague. “This is the worst deal ever.”
The president accused Australia of trying to export the “next Boston bombers,” The Post said. The paper said he then abruptly ended the call after 25 minutes, when it was supposed to last an hour.
The Australian prime minister denied one aspect of those reports — that Trump angrily hung up.
He did not deny the rest of the report — that the chat went badly: “The report that the president hung up is not correct. The call ended courteously,” Turnbull said. ”As for the nature of the discussion — it was very frank and forthright.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has chatted with Trump several times. Official accounts have said they were cordial. There have been no leaks to the press about any tension on those calls.
But Stephen Saideman, an international-relations scholar at Carleton University in Ottawa, says things will be tense for U.S. allies.
”That Trump is now pissing off Australia is simply bad news. But it has implications beyond a bilateral relationship that was solid, easy to manage, and downright fun until yesterday,” Saideman writes in a blog post.
“So what are allies supposed to do? Dodge, dip, duck, dive and dodge? That is what Canada is doing now, and it really might make the most sense.”
In a possible effort to soothe hard feelings, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was reportedly calling his counterpart in Mexico during his first full day on the job Thursday. He was also expected to speak soon with Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.
In Ottawa, a former CIA director said Trump should also pick up the phone. Michael Hayden told a conference that if media accounts are accurate, Trump should call back the Australian prime minister and “do a little mending.”
“As an American, I’m disappointed by some of the tone coming out of the new administration,” Hayden said. ”But I’m also aware this is a new administration. All administrations have a breaking-in period.”