Donald Trump Plays A Dangerous Game Of Telephone

Why are we beefing with Australia now?

Lest we forget, the U.S. is not the only player in the zany, rake-stomping farce that is the Donald Trump administration. The entire planet is along for the ride, and if recent reports are any indication, all it takes is a phone call from Trump to touch off some sort of Armando Iannucci set piece. This week, it’s apparently Australia and Mexico’s turn to “climb the mountain of conflict.”

So what is happening? As near as anyone can tell, Trump is calling up world leaders and not all of these calls seem to be going so great. Details leak, denials are issued... everyone seems to have their own story. It’s like a literal game of telephone, the nip and pull of global diplomacy reduced to some sort of tween-age slumber party caper. Only, ha ha, there are real things at stake!

We begin with a Washington Post report from Wednesday night, describing a phone call between Trump and his Australian counterpart, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Australia is one of the United States’ staunchest allies and a key member of an intelligence-sharing coalition known as the “Five Eyes” ― an alliance that also includes Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. This sort of call should be a layup for any new president, but somehow or other, Trump bricked it. Per The Washington Post:

President Trump blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a refu­gee agreement and boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win, according to senior U.S. officials briefed on the Saturday exchange. Then, 25 minutes into what was expected to be an hour-long call, Trump abruptly ended it.

At one point, Trump informed Turnbull that he had spoken with four other world leaders that day — including Russian President Vladi­mir Putin — and that “this was the worst call by far.”

What made this call so “the worst,” apparently, is that Turnbull and Trump had a disagreement over a refugee deal forged during the Obama administration ― one that would see the United States taking in “1,250 refugees from an Australian detention center.” As the Post reported, Trump “complained that he was ‘going to get killed’ politically and accused Australia of seeking to export the ‘next Boston bombers.’”

The Post goes on to report that the White House offered no formal comment on the matter, though it provided an official read-out of the exchange that the paper characterizes as “sanitized.” An anonymous “senior administration official” confirmed that the call to Turnbull was “hostile and charged,” but added that it was an outlier amid more “productive” calls. Australian officials, according to later reports, denied that the call ended in Trump hanging up on Turnbull, but nevertheless confirmed that the Post’s story was “substantially accurate.”

What may be less substantially accurate, however, is that the call with Turnbull really was an outlier. That’s because The Associated Press reported that it obtained “an excerpt of a transcript” of a phone conversation between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. During that call, Trump said ― per the AP ― that “he was ready to send U.S. troops to stop ‘bad hombres down there’ unless the Mexican military [did] more to control” said “bad hombres.” Which would really be a significant change in U.S. foreign policy.

Here’s the thing about this Associated Press report, though. The source of the excerpt of the call is unknown, as are many other pertinent details. The AP acknowledges this high up in its story:

The excerpt of the call did not detail who exactly Trump considered “bad hombres,” nor did it make clear the tone and context of the remark, made in a Friday morning phone call between the leaders. It also did not contain Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s response.

And Mexican officials subsequently denied up and down that any talk of sending troops to Mexico ― or indeed, any hostile conversation at all ― had happened. Mexico’s foreign relations department called the report an “absolute falsehood.” Eduardo Sanchez, a spokesman for Pena Nieto, told the AP that the conversation was neither “hostile” nor “humiliating,” and that it was “absolutely false that [Trump] threatened to send troops to Mexico.” (The White House did not respond to the AP’s requests for comment.)

And The Washington Post, which originally mentioned this AP report in their story about the Turnbull call, removed mention of the Mexico call after the fact. An editor’s note appended to that Post piece indicates that someone had second thoughts about the thin sourcing: “This article has been updated and a reference to an AP report on the details of a phone conversation between President Trump and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto removed because they could not be independently confirmed.”

And that might have been the end of that, were it not for a follow-up story from The Associated Press that I literally had to read multiple times to make sure I was comprehending it. Per the AP:

President Donald Trump warned in a phone call with his Mexican counterpart that he was ready to send U.S. troops to stop “bad hombres down there” unless the Mexican military does more to control them — comments the White House described as “lighthearted.”

The White House said Thursday that the remarks, in an excerpt obtained by The Associated Press from a transcript of the hourlong conversation, were “part of a discussion about how the United States and Mexico could work collaboratively to combat drug cartels and other criminal elements, and make the border more secure.”

So, despite having every in-the-know official from Mexico declaring that no such remarks were made and attesting to the productive nature of the call, a White House official who just couldn’t leave well enough alone thought it would be a good idea to chase after the AP and let them know that, yes, Trump really said those things, but everyone was just misunderstanding him! He was only joking, man! You know about that whole “literally versus seriously” thing!

What a mess. And it’s all of a piece with everything else we’ve seen out of this administration in the 900 years two weeks it’s been in power ― the rushed executive orders that caught agencies flat-footed; the odd declaration about Iran being “on notice” that left U.S. Central Command mystified; the ongoing debate over whether anyone with access to the Oval Office is aware that Frederick Douglass is not actually alive and walking among us.

We could really do with a little adult supervision up in the White House, you guys.


Jason Linkins edits “Eat the Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.