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Congressional leaders scramble to reassure Australia after testy Trump phone call

Top Republican figures on Capitol Hill sought to reassure Australia on Thursday after reports of a remarkably tense phone call between President Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Australia was a “very essential” U.S. ally after being pressed in a morning news conference by reporters on the call, as well as on a tweet late Wednesday in which Trump dismissed an agreement to accept refugees from Australia as a “dumb deal.”

“I don’t think Australia should be worried about its relationship with our new president, or with our country, for that matter,” Ryan said, making reference to a September meeting he had with Turnbull. “Australia is a very important and central ally. It’s going to continue to be.”

‘This was the worst call by far’: Trump badgered, bragged and abruptly ended phone call with Australian leader

White House press secretary Sean Spicer says President Trump and Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull had a “very cordial” call despite reports indicating otherwise. (Video: Reuters)

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a frequent critic of Trump’s foreign policy stances, phoned Australia’s ambassador to the United States on Thursday morning to “express my unwavering support for the U.S.-Australia alliance,” according to a statement issued by his office.

McCain’s statement cited U.S.-Australian military alliances dating back to World War I, made reference to the hundreds of Australians who died fighting alongside Americans in the Vietnam War and detailed ongoing cooperation between the U.S. and Australian armed forces.

“In short, Australia is one of America’s oldest friends and staunchest allies,” McCain said. “We are united by ties of family and friendship, mutual interests and common values, and shared sacrifice in wartime.

“In that spirit, I called Australia’s Ambassador to the United States this morning to express my unwavering support for the U.S.-Australia alliance. I asked Ambassador [Joe] Hockey to convey to the people of Australia that their American brothers and sisters value our historic alliance, honor the sacrifice of the Australians who have served and are serving by our side, and remain committed to the safer, freer, and better world that Australia does far more than its fair share to protect and promote.”

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, said Thursday he was set to speak with Hockey Thursday afternoon and sought to play down tensions over the refugee resettlements.

“We’re going to continue to have a great relationship, and this is one of those things where we want to make sure that we work out the details of this,” he said. “Australia has been one of our strongest allies, and we’re going to maintain that.”

Ryan declined to comment specifically on the tweet or on the phone call itself, saying he did not “know about the veracity of those reports.”

Trump’s tweet included factual errors about the Obama agreement with Australia, saying it concerned “thousands of illegal immigrants” when in fact the deal involved roughly 1,200 refugees from war-torn nations, not “illegal immigrants,” who have been detained in camps on offshore islands.

Here’s what the ‘dumb deal’ on refugees with Australia actually says

“I think it’s important that presidents and prime ministers, heads of state, are able to have candid and private conversations with one another,” Ryan said.

In other remarks, Ryan again criticized the rollout of Trump’s executive order Friday suspending refugee resettlements and temporarily halting the admission of nationals of seven terror-linked Muslim-majority nations. But he said it was “loose rhetoric” to describe it as a “Muslim ban,” as many of the order’s critics have said.

“This is not a Muslim ban,” Ryan said. “If it was, I would be against it.”

“I think the rollout could have been done a lot better,” he later added. “Look at green-card holders — nobody wanted green-card holders to get caught up with this. … Yes, the rollout could have been done much better. I think we all know that.

“But going forward, let’s make sure that we’re not saying that this is something that it’s not so that we further misperceptions.”