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Trump berated Australia’s prime minister over a refugee policy he barely understood

Calls to Mexican and Australian counterparts give insight into Trump's diplomatic style (Video: The Washington Post)

We've known for a while that President Trump berated Australia's prime minister on a Jan. 28 phone call; The Washington Post reported on it back then.

What we didn't know then was how little Trump understood the policy that was discussed on the call.

According to a transcript of the call unearthed by The Post's Greg Miller, the deal to resettle refugees was actually brought up first on the call by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who wanted assurance that the U.S. government would stand by its commitment in light of Trump's stance on other refugees. After some discussion of the Islamic State and Christian refugees more generally, Turnbull says, “This is a very big issue for us, particularly domestically, and I do understand you are inclined to a different point of view than the vice president.”

Trump then starts the back-and-forth by noting that someone had just described the deal to him. But then he uses inaccurate numbers: “Somebody told me yesterday that close to 2,000 people are coming who are really probably troublesome.”

Later, he inflates it even more for reasons that aren't clear. “With great respect,” Turnbull says, “that is not right; it is not 2,000.” Trump responds: “Well, it is close. I have also heard, like, 5,000 as well.”

The number, in fact, is about 1,250, which is the number of refugees currently being held on the islands of Manus and Nauru.

Trump also doesn't even seem familiar with the fact that the deal was forged by the Obama administration. “Who made the deal? Obama?” Trump asks. Turnbull responds, apparently realizing Trump is out of his depth, “Yes, but let me describe what it is.”

Finally, later in the conversation, Trump seems wholly unfamiliar with the reason the United States might take these refugees in the first place, rather than Australia. It's because Australia doesn't take refugees who arrive via boat, which is how these refugees traveled.

Trump repeatedly seems puzzled, first as to why Australia doesn't take the refugees and then as to why they have a policy of not accepting people via boat:

TRUMP: Why haven’t you let them out? Why have you not let them into your society?
TURNBULL: Okay, I will explain why. It is not because they are bad people. It is because in order to stop people-smugglers, we had to deprive them of the product. So we said if you try to come to Australia by boat, even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Nobel Prize-winning genius, we will not let you in.

And later:

TURNBULL: Let me explain. We know exactly who they are. They have been on Nauru or Manus for over three years and the only reason we cannot let them into Australia is because of our commitment to not allow people to come by boat. Otherwise we would have let them in. If they had arrived by airplane and with a tourist visa then they would be here.
TRUMP: Malcom, but they are arrived on a boat?
TURNBULL: Correct, we have stopped the boats.


TURNBULL: We will take more. We will take anyone that you want us to take. The only people that we do not take are people who come by boat. So we would rather take a not-very-attractive guy that help you out then to take a Noble Peace Prize winner that comes by boat. That is the point.
TRUMP: What is the thing with boats? Why do you discriminate against boats? No, I know, they come from certain regions. I get it.
TURNBULL: No, let me explain why. The problem with the boats it that you are basically outsourcing your immigration program to people-smugglers and also you get thousands of people drowning at sea. So what we say is, we will decide which people get to come to Australia who are refugees, economic migrants, businessmen, whatever. We decide. That is our decision.

It's difficult to read all of this and believe Trump had anything more than a passing understanding of the refugee resettlement deal before this call, and yet he launches into a virtual tirade against a major U.S. ally and later hangs up on Turnbull.

This, of course, wouldn't be the only time that Trump has spoken with a foreign leader apparently without doing his homework on the major issues between their two countries. When he welcomed the Lebanese prime minister to the White House recently, Trump was asked about sanctions against Hezbollah and didn't seem to have a clue. He even seemed to not recognize the word “Hezbollah” at one point.

Needless to say, conducting diplomacy without an understanding of the issues you're debating is a pretty curious approach. It seems a lot like Trump heard the word “refugees” and that's all he needed to know.