Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 May 2019

Leaked Trump transcripts reveal bluster and bargaining in calls with world leaders

Full details of conversations with Mexican president and Australian PM revealed in another embarrassment for White House

US president Donald Trump, seated at his desk in the Oval Office with his senior adviser Steve Bannon, right, and then national security adviser Michael Flynn, speaks by phone with Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on January 28, 2017. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
US president Donald Trump, seated at his desk in the Oval Office with his senior adviser Steve Bannon, right, and then national security adviser Michael Flynn, speaks by phone with Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on January 28, 2017. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Leaked transcripts of phone conversations between Donald Trump and two world leaders show the US president relentlessly focused on his political image and underscore some of the difficulty he has had navigating foreign affairs.

The conversations between Mr Trump and Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto during the US president’s first week in office offer a window into his occasionally fraught relationships with other world leaders and his approach to negotiating toward his goals.

While some details had been reported earlier, full transcripts of the calls, produced by White House staff, were published on Thursday by the Washington Post. The newspaper did not reveal how it obtained the transcripts.

Revelations include Mr Trump describing his proposed border wall to Mexico’s president as “the least important thing we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important”. He implores Pena Nieto to stop saying publicly that Mexico will not pay for its construction, and suggests they could work out a deal so that the cost would “come out in the wash”.

In his call with Mr Turnbull, the president vents about the Australian prime minister’s insistence that Mr Trump honour a deal struck by former president Barack Obama’s administration to allow 1,250 refugees housed by Australia into the United States.

“This is going to kill me,” Mr Trump told Mr Turnbull, calling the deal “stupid” and saying it “will make me look terrible”. The president goes on to describe their conversation - on a day in which he also spoke to the leaders of Russia, Germany, Japan, and France - as his worst call of the bunch.

"I have had it,” Mr Trump says. “I have been making these calls all day and this is the most unpleasant call all day. [Russian president Vladimir] Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous.”

White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters called the leaks “damaging to our national security” and called for them to stop. She said Mr Trump spoke about issues that he campaigned on and declined to comment on the specifics of the conversations.

Damaging leaks

“It prevents the president from being able to do what he does best and negotiate with foreign leaders,” she told reporters on Thursday aboard Air Force One.

The release of the transcripts, which are circulated within national security departments and agencies, demonstrates that the Trump administration is still struggling to prevent leaks that appear intended to damage his presidency. Officials have previously expressed frustration with the revelations, saying they impair the ability of the president to speak candidly with world leaders.

The conversations are peppered with the president’s signature braggadocio and flair for the politically incorrect.

He tells the Mexican president that he “won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den”. Democrat Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire’s electoral votes in the general election, though Mr Trump did win the Republican primary there. The comment has drawn criticism from Democratic legislators in the state, with senator Maggie Hassan calling the characterisation “disgusting” and senator Jeanne Shaheen saying Trump owed New Hampshire an apology.

Ms Walters declined to comment when asked if Mr Trump would apologise, saying that the opioid epidemic was an “important focus” of his.

Mr Trump also claims to have earned the votes of a “large percentage of Hispanic voters”, brags about the size of his campaign crowds, and offers to help “big league” with Mexico’s “pretty tough hombres” responsible for the drug trade.

The transcripts show Mr Pena Nieto and Mr Turnbull struggling to reconcile Mr Trump’s words with the norms of international diplomacy, the actual terms of trade and migration deals, and his publicly professed positions.

When Mr Pena Nieto says that he will continue to be firm in saying Mexico could not pay for the wall, Mr Trump implores him to not say so to the media.

“The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that,” Mr Trump said. “You cannot say that to the press because I cannot negotiate under those circumstances.”

Not talking

Mr Pena Nieto’s office subsequently said that the two leaders had agreed to stop publicly talking about who would pay for the wall. But Mr Trump said just before a meeting with the Mexican president at the G20 summit last month in Germany that Mexico “absolutely” should pay for the barrier, though he did not raise the issue with Mr Pena Nieto.

At one point in their phone call, Mr Trump also seems to threaten Mexico with a border tax on imports, saying he was contemplating 35 per cent tariffs on products “ripped from their foundation” in the US and moved to Mexico, with lower rates imposed on other goods. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer floated that idea to reporters days later, only for the White House to retreat publicly from the idea.

Mr Pena Nieto says he is “surprised” by the idea, saying it deviated from the staff-level discussions between their nations.

“The proposal that you are making is completely new, vis-a-vis the conversations our two teams have been having,” he says.

The conversations also foreshadow some of the broader foreign policy headaches that have plagued Mr Trump’s first six months in office.

G20 reception

Mr Trump got a frosty reception at a pair of world summits in Europe, with traditional US allies expressing frustration with his willingness to go back on deals negotiated by the Obama administration. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord left the US isolated during that discussion at last month’s G20 summit in Germany.

The US president’s focus on catchphrases and threats has also proven a sticking point among traditional allies. Germany’s Angela Merkel has signalled frustration with Mr Trump’s insistence that her country, whose trade relations with the US are governed by a broader European deal, is exploiting US-German trade. The president’s insistent suggestions that Nato allies owe back payments to the alliance because of a mutual agreement for each country to reach a certain defence spending goal has also earned eye-rolls within Europe.

Mr Trump’s gruff and occasionally confrontational manner has also ruffled feathers and led to memorable diplomatic moments, from shoving his way to the front of a G20 family photo to awkward handshakes with other leaders.

And while Mr Trump frequently said on the campaign trail that he would use his business acumen to pressure China into curbing North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions, provocations have continued. Earlier this week, Mr Trump tweeted he was "very disappointed " with China over the issue.

In Australia, a Lowy Institute Poll poll released in June showed 60 per cent of Australians say Mr Trump has caused them to have an unfavourable opinion of the US, the nation’s most important ally.

Mr Turnbull, who lampooned the president in a June speech, received plaudits from one of his cabinet members on Friday.

“He stood up for the deal that he had agreed with the Obama administration, and he made that point very forcefully,” energy minister Josh Frydenberg said. “That is what we expect of our prime minister."

Updated: August 4, 2017 12:44 PM