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Trump Defends Comments Blasting Australian Refugee Agreement

Feb 2, 2017
Originally published on February 2, 2017 5:33 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

From Mexico to Russia to Iran, President Trump is shaking up U.S. foreign policy all over the world. The latest confrontation comes from one of the U.S.'s staunchest allies, Australia.

Trump spoke yesterday by phone with Australia's prime minister. He reportedly called a refugee agreement between the nations the worst deal ever and ended the call saying it was the worst call by far he's had with any foreign leader. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has more.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: President Trump used his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast this morning to dial down the uproar over his reportedly contentious call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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.

LIASSON: Toughness is Trump's stock in trade of course, but Trump's take on the call was a little different than the description shared by a much more diplomatic Prime Minister Turnbull.

PRIME MINISTER MALCOLM TURNBULL: The report that the president hung up is not correct. The call ended courteously, and as far as the nature of the discussion, it was very frank and forthright.

LIASSON: Later, President Trump said he didn't like the, quote, "dumb deal" President Obama had made with the Australians to take in about 1,200 refugees currently housed in offshore camps.

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TRUMP: For whatever reason, President Obama said that they were going to take probably well over a thousand illegal immigrants who were in prisons, and they were going to bring them in - take them into this country. And I just said, why?

LIASSON: Actually, the people are in offshore detention centers, not prisons, and they are considered potential refugees, not illegal immigrants. Under the deal made by President Obama, they would be admitted to the U.S. only if they pass through the U.S. vetting process. The rhetoric sounded consistent with Trump's America-first philosophy, but significantly in this case, Trump did not say he would scrap the deal.

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TRUMP: We'll see what happens. But you know, a previous administration does something; you have to respect that. But you can also say, why are we doing this?

LIASSON: On another subject, Trump began the day by praising his newly installed secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.

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TRUMP: Some people didn't like Rex because he actually got along with leaders of the world. I said, no, you have to understand. That's a good thing. That's a good thing, not a bad thing.

LIASSON: Tillerson has a friendly relationship with one foreign leader in particular, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Trump has also praised consistently. Today, the Treasury Department announced it was making what the administration called a technical adjustment to the sanctions President Obama placed on the Russian Security Agency, or FSB. The FSB is the successor to the KGB and was the main agency accused in the hacking of the 2016 elections.

President Trump has suggested he might be willing to ease the sanctions on Russia in return for Russian cooperation on terrorism. And while officials from both the Trump and Obama administrations called the change a small, innocuous fix, the Russians seized the opportunity to spin this in a positive way, praising Trump for, quote, "easing the sanctions."

The former director of the FSB was quoted in the Russian news agency TASS as saying, without easing these sanctions, it would have been impossible to cooperate in the war on terror. This indicates that U.S. President Donald Trump has been consistent. As for U.S. president Donald Trump, when told the Russians were praising him for easing sanctions, he said, I'm not easing anything. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.