The president is under fire after leaks emerged about his aggressive phones calls with U.S. allies Mexico and Australia.
President Donald Trump on Thursday tried to dial back the uproar over his tough talk in contentious private calls with foreign leaders, including the Mexican president and the Australian prime minister, saying that he knows how to “fix things,” including the world’s problems.
“When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it,” Trump said during remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. “Just don’t worry about it.”
It was a sign that Trump hopes to change the terms of debate about his contentious foreign policy moves, spinning his lack of diplomatic protocol and his harsh new travel restrictions as the work of a decisive leader reasserting American strength.
But he faced biting criticism over his statesmanship from Democrats and at least one top Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who took action to reassure the Australian ambassador of the partnership between both nations. Many congressional Republicans, however, were reluctant to express dissent, instead reiterating what they assured was durable bond.
And Trump insisted he’s in firm control.
In the past several days, Trump has rattled foreign leaders and diplomats with blunt words for Iran, Mexico and Australia — along with his controversial travel ban covering seven Muslim-majority countries.
Diplomats and experts say Trump’s recent behavior likely has some foreign governments recalculating their approach to phone calls and meetings with the U.S. president.
The latest furor kicked off Wednesday afternoon, when national security adviser Michael Flynn said the Trump administration is “officially putting Iran on notice” following a recent missile test, and senior officials later refused to rule out military action against the Islamic Republic.
The concern over the Trump administration’s posture toward foreign adversaries and allies was then heightened after an Associated Press report emerged that Trump had threatened on a call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to send American troops to stop “bad hombres down there” if the Mexican military fails to do so itself. Peña Nieto was expected to visit Washington this week but canceled his trip after Trump challenged him to commit to paying for the border wall or nix their upcoming meeting.
And during a call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Trump slammed a refugee agreement between both nations as “the worst deal ever,” accused Turnbull of seeking to export the “next Boston bombers” and told the prime minister that their conversation was “the worst call by far” between him and foreign leaders, according to The Washington Post. The call was expected to last an hour, but it reportedly ended abruptly after 25 minutes.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer described conversation between Trump and Turnbull as “very cordial,” adding that the president has “tremendous respect” for his counterpart. But Trump, he said, is “unbelievably disappointed” by the Obama era agreement and its threat to national security.
The recent episodes between Trump and foreign leaders are being studied closely in Tokyo this week, ahead of a Feb. 10 visit to the White House by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
One Western diplomat said Abe’s team is likely evaluating the experience of British Prime Minister Theresa May, who struck a chummy tone with Trump during her White House visit last week — only to find herself under fire and facing mass protests back home after Trump signed his controversial executive orders restricting travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries the White House said pose special security concerns.
Diplomats are trying to imagine how Trump will perform on his overseas trips, including his likely attendance at a May G7 summit in Sicily and a July G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.
“He will have to be much more statesmanlike than he has been,” the diplomat said.
Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president, earlier Thursday refused to comment on Trump’s private conversations but suggested the calls have been misrepresented and that people “trying to get these salacious details” aren’t serving the country well. She also said that Trump’s rhetoric is nothing new.
“Look, anybody who just discovered that President Donald J. Trump is a resolute, decisive man who doesn’t mince his words and who’s putting America and her allies and her people and her interest first is waking up, I think, out of a cave from the last two years,” she told Fox News. “But at the same time, he has had very respectful conversations with many leaders, just in the last week or so — 10 or more world leaders. He is trying to reach out to them, talk to the diplomatic corps, certainly. But he also makes very clear what his position is on any number of issues around the globe.”
McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, condemned Trump’s “unnecessary” and “harmful” treatment of Australia during a gaggle with reporters. In a statement released by his office, he also said he spoke with Joe Hockey, Australia’s ambassador to the U.S., by phone Thursday morning “to express my unwavering support for the U.S.-Australia alliance.”
“I asked Ambassador Hockey to convey to the people of Australia that their American brothers and sisters value our historic alliance, honor the sacrifice of the Australians who have served and are serving by our side, and remain committed to the safer, freer, and better world that Australia does far more than its fair share to protect and promote,” McCain said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan conceded at his weekly news conference that the Australia call may pose a perception problem for the U.S. But he argued that America’s relationship with Australia will endure and highlighted the importance of private conversations between leaders.
“Australia is a very essential ally. They are and they will continue to be,” he told reporters, adding, “I think it’s important that presidents and prime ministers — heads of state — are able to have candid and private conversations with one another.”
In a post late Wednesday, Trump shared his foreign policy thoughts via Twitter, blaming the Obama administration for the U.S.-Australia deal — an agreement to take in, according to some reports, up to 3,000 predominantly-Muslim refugees (Trump incorrectly called them “illegal immigrants”) seeking asylum — and promised to “study this dumb deal!”
Ina pair of tweets Thursday morning, the president also went after Iran, writing that the country has been “PUT ON NOTICE.”
“Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile. Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!” Trump wrote. “Iran was on its last legs and ready to collapse until the U.S. came along and gave it a life-line in the form of the Iran Deal: $150 billion.”
His early morning post followed another Iran-related tweet the president sent late Wednesday night, when he ratcheted up the rhetoric against Iran for “rapidly taking over more and more of Iraq even after the U.S. has squandered three trillion dollars there. Obvious long ago!”
Wednesday’s tougher line about Iran delighted Sunni Arab leaders, including in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who spent years imploring the Obama administration to crack down on Tehran’s foreign aggression.
Asked how allies would know that given reports of the call between Trump and Turnbull, Gardner said he doesn’t speak for the White House.
“You’d have to ask the White House, but what I know is that we will continue to strengthen our relationship with Australia as we do with allies around the globe, unlike the past eight years where we saw tremendous weakness in U.S. leadership,” he said.
At the prayer breakfast, Trump reemphasized, “We’re gonna straighten it out.” And he added his signature plea for skeptics: “Believe me.”