What Trump really meant in those phone calls

Anthony Zurcher
North America reporter
@awzurcheron Twitter

image source, Getty Images
image captionTrump calls Turnbull but the conversation doesn't go well

Deconstructing a Donald Trump verbatim transcript has become the hottest new pastime in Washington, DC.

Just days after being treated to a veritable treasure trove of strange presidential assertions and non sequiturs in a previously unreleased Wall Street Journal interview, the public has been offered a blast from the (recent) past in leaked records of Mr Trump's phone conversations with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The conversations took place on the same day in January, in the US president's first week in office, during a marathon session of phone calls to world leaders. It gives an inside view into how Mr Trump talks when he doesn't think the public is listening (hint: it's not much different from his public performances).

Here are some highlights.

On Mexico phone call

TRUMP: "Well, Canada is no problem - do not worry about Canada, do not even think about them. That is a separate thing and they are fine and we have had a very fair relationship with Canada. It has been much more balanced and much more fair. So we do not have to worry about Canada, we do not even think about them."

AZ: This could be an example of the Trump administration's seeming preference for bilateral trade negotiations, rather than multi-party agreements like Nafta. While the president professed to have "no problem" with Canada, since his conversation with Mr Pena Nieto, Mr Trump has been quite critical of his northern neighbour, blasting the nation's policies on dairy and soft lumber exports.

TRUMP: "I won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den."

AZ: Donald Trump lost New Hampshire in the general election, but he won its Republican primary last February, which cemented his status as the front-runner for the party's nomination. While he was campaigning there he acknowledged the state's opioid addiction epidemic, but never in such derogatory terms.

TRUMP: "You have some pretty tough hombres in Mexico that you may need help with, and we are willing to help you with that big-league. But they have to be knocked out and you have not done a good job of knocking them out."

image source, Getty Images
image captionTrump and Pena Nieto have had some awkward exchanges

AZ: The "tough hombre" line had leaked - and been roundly derided as insensitive - shortly after the president had his conversation with Mr Nieto. Now it can be viewed in context, which doesn't do much to help the president appear diplomatic.

TRUMP: "If you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that," he said. "You cannot say that to the press".

AZ: One of Mr Trump's key campaign promises runs up against a cold hard reality critics had pointed out from the very beginning. Mexico just isn't going to pay for the border wall. The president seems to recognise his predicament and the public relations fiasco that could result. His solution? Trying to convince Mr Pena Nieto to stop talking about it to the press.

TRUMP: "It is you and I against the world, Enrique, do not forget."

AZ: Well, this is a strange sentiment given that Mexico - and undocumented Mexican immigrants - were a regular punching bag for Mr Trump for much of his presidential campaign. Mr Pena Nieto's flattery throughout the conversation seems to have softened the president's attitude, at least for the moment.

TRUMP: "Your words are so beautiful. Those are beautiful words and I do not think I can speak that beautifully, okay? It would be great to put those words at the end of the statement."

AZ: During the campaign, Mr Trump once boasted: "I know the best words." Perhaps the president is acknowledging that, in Mr Pena Nieto, he's finally met his match.

On Australia phone call

TRUMP: "This [refugee resettlement deal] is going to kill me. I am the world's greatest person that does not want to let people into the country."

AZ: Mr Trump apparently walked into his phone call with Mr Turnbull with no clear understanding of the details of the refugee resettlement agreement, aside from what "somebody" told him the day before.

TRUMP: "I guarantee you they [refugees] are bad. That is why they are in prison right now. They are not going to be wonderful people who go on to work for the local milk people."

AZ: The refugees in question were being detained, not imprisoned - a key difference. And, as Mr Turnbull points out, the US did not agree to admit all 1,250 individuals, but rather to screen them and then admit only those who would pose no threat to the "milk people".

image source, Getty Images
image caption'I wasn't exactly mocking you, Donald'

TRUMP: "That is why they lost the election, because of stupid deals like this. You have brokered many a stupid deal in business and I respect you, but I guarantee that you broke many a stupid deal. This is a stupid deal."

AZ: One seldom has to wait for long for Mr Trump to bring up the 2016 presidential election, whether it's in a phone call with a foreign leader, a White House event for a championship sports team or a speech to a Boy Scout jubilee. That - and the art of successful deal-making - are the president's two favourite topics of discussion. Mr Turnbull gets a two-for-one special.

TRUMP: "What is the thing with boats? Why do you discriminate against boats?"

AZ: One of the things Mr Trump doesn't seem to understand is why Australia will not grant asylum to anyone who arrives on its soil by seagoing vessel. As Mr Turnbull tries to explain, the reason is to discourage human traffickers and make the dangerous water voyage less appealing to refugees. It has nothing to do with the country of origin of the refugees or the perceived risk associated with granting them residency.

TRUMP: "I have had it. I have been making these calls all day and this is the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous."

AZ: There were news reports after the conversation that Mr Trump's interactions with Mr Turnbull were less than cordial. The president and the White House denied it, but the transcript tells a different story. The line about Vladimir Putin is just the icing on the cake.