The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After the ‘worst call,’ the Australian media calls Trump unreliable — but smart and tough

The Trump-Turnbull phone call is a huge story in Australian media.

U.S. media accounts of President Trump's tense, truncated phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull have generally presented the episode as evidence that the new commander in chief lacks diplomatic skills.

The New York Times, for example, reported that “the flare-up ... could drive Canberra closer to China,” while Salon described “a disaster down under.”

But in the Australian media, Trump comes across differently — unreliable, yes, but also smarter and tougher than his Aussie counterpart. The White House could not have hoped for anything better.

“Malcolm Turnbull thought he could outsmart Donald Trump and trap him into taking 1,250 of our boat people,” Andrew Bolt wrote in the Herald Sun of Melbourne. “Huge mistake, and now he's been humiliated.”

Rita Panahi, Bolt's fellow columnist at the Herald Sun, wrote that “you have to admire Donald Trump's powers of perception. It took months for most of the media and much of the public to figure out the P.M. is a dud — Trump did it in just 25 minutes.”

The Sydney Morning Herald's Daniel Flitton framed the call as “an unprecedented roasting of an Australian prime minister by a U.S. president,” casting Turnbull as a weak victim of Trump's bullying.

In Melbourne's The Age, Paul McGeough speculated that the Trump White House strategically used Turnbull, leaking details of the call to The Washington Post to establish the new president's tough-guy image in front of a global audience.

If Trump wants to be a bully on the world stage, he needs victims; and a bully is only as good as his reputation — so his victims must be humiliated by the telling of their humiliation, either in a tweet or, as in this case, a background briefing to The Washington Post.
Infuriating for Turnbull, it didn't have to be Australia. The Trump team could have just as easily slipped the name of any other leader into their account of how tough the new president is.

Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday, Trump delivered a message to Americans: “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 going to be a little tough, folks. We're taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually. It's not going to happen anymore.”

Trump often said during the campaign that other nations exploit American generosity. Syndicated Australian columnist Peter Hartcher suggested something similar on Thursday, writing that his country has existed in “a state of adolescent dependency on America.” Perhaps the “bloody awful phone call,” he wrote, will prompt Australia to “mature ... into a more adult state.”

The Trump-Turnbull phone call is a huge story in Australia, as the collection of headlines at the top of this article illustrates, and the story there is less about whether the president is too reckless than it is about whether another world leader can stand up to him. That is exactly what Trump wants.