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Trump accuses Australia's prime minister of trying send 'next Boston bombers' in 'dumb' refugee deal

U.S. ties with ally Australia were strained on Thursday over a reported acrimonious phone call between their two leaders and U.S. President Donald Trump's assertion that an existing refugee swap deal was "dumb."

Trump described the resettlement plan as "the worst deal ever," the Washington Post reported, and accused Australia of trying to export the "next Boston bombers."

The call had been scheduled to last an hour but Trump cut it short after 25 minutes when Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tried to turn to subjects such as Syria, according to the newspaper.

The apparent breakdown between Washington and Canberra that has developed over the resettlement deal could have serious repercussions. Australia and the United States are among the five nations that make up the Five Eyes group, the world's leading intelligence-sharing network.

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Turnbull told reporters he was surprised and disappointed that details of the call with Trump had been leaked but gave few particulars other than to deny reports Trump had hung up on him.

“As far as the call is concerned, 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," he told a Sydney radio station on Thursday.

Turnbull declined to confirm the Post report that Trump, who has spoken to world leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, had angrily told the Australian leader that the call was "the worst so far."

As reports of the phone conversation made headlines on both sides of the world, Trump tweeted shortly before midnight in Washington: "Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal."

The tweets threw more confusion about the status of the controversial deal that Australia made with former President Barack Obama late last year.

The United States would resettle up to 1,250 asylum seekers held in offshore processing camps on Pacific islands in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. In return, Australia would resettle refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The swap is at odds with Trump's executive order last week suspending the U.S. refugee program and restricting entry to the United States for travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Many of the people being held in the Australian detention centers, which have drawn harsh criticism from the United Nations and rights groups, fled violence in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

People on Twitter blasted Trump painting refugees with such a broad brush.


White House spokesman Sean Spicer and the U.S. Embassy in Australia have both said Trump would honor the deal. In several media appearances after Trump's tweet, Turnbull reiterated that he believed the deal stood.

"He is saying that this is not a deal he would have made, but the question is will he honor that commitment? He has already given it," Turnbull said.

Trump, attending a national prayer breakfast in Washington on Thursday, said the United States was being taken advantage of and that he was having "tough phone calls" as he addressed issues. Trump did not name Australia or its leader by name.

"We're taken advantage of by every nation in the world virtually. It's not going to happen anymore," he said, without naming any country.

Political analysts said such acrimony was unprecedented, surpassing even the difficult relations between former U.S. President Richard Nixon and then-Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who withdrew the country's troops during the Vietnam War.

"Even that was always done in the language of foreign policy niceties," said Harry Phillips, a political analyst of 40 years experience at Edith Cowan and Curtin universities in Perth.

'LASTING DAMAGE' TO CLOSE ALLY?

Australia, New Zealand and the United States have been allies under a formal security treaty since 1951. They co-operate on military matters in the Pacific region, although today the treaty is taken to relate to conflicts worldwide.

The United States plans to send extra military aircraft to Australia's tropical north this year as part of a U.S. Marines deployment that will bolster its military presence close to the disputed South China Sea.

Australia is also one of 10 U.S. allies purchasing Lockheed Martin's <LMT.N> F-35 fighter jet program.

The Post quoted unidentified senior U.S. officials briefed on the conversation between Trump and Turnbull. It also quoted the official read-out from the call, which emphasized "the enduring strength and closeness of the U.S.-Australia relationship that is critical for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and globally".

It also said Trump had boasted to Turnbull about the size of his election victory.

Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, expressed concern about the conversation. "We can only hope he did no lasting damage to one of our closest alliances," he said in a statement. "Australia is one of the strongest friends we have, and our common interest in fighting terror and confronting Chinese aggression binds us ever closer".

John McCain, the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had called Australia's U.S. ambassador on Thursday to express his unwavering support for the military alliance between the two nations.

The senator told the envoy that Americans "remain committed to the safer, freer, and better world, that Australia does far more than its fair share to protect and promote," he said in a statement.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a news conference on Thursday: "I don't think Australia should be worried about its relationship with our new president or with our country."

(Additional reporting by Eric Walsh, Susan Heavey and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Jane Wardell; Editing by Paul Tait and Jeffrey Benkoe)