Turnbull stays shtum as Trump message changes
Like Britain’s Theresa May, Malcolm Turnbull is learning that the worst way to be approaching Donald Trump is in the role of supplicant.
Turnbull came away from his phone call with the White House on Sunday to announce Trump’s “commitment” to honour the deal worked out with Barack Obama to take most of Australia’s Manus and Nauru gulag inmates, in a swap for Central American refugees, despite Trump’s halt a day earlier to entry from seven Muslim countries − including Iran, where many of the refugees come from.
Turns out there was a bit of verballing by the PM here. According to The Washington Post, Trump merely said it was his “intention” to honour the deal, wording one “senior US official” interpreted as giving him room to wriggle out. Sure enough, soon after Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, said the deal for 1250 refugees would go ahead, subject to “extreme vetting”, the White House was backtracking. “The president is still considering whether or not he will move forward with this deal at this time,” it said in a written statement to the ABC.
On Thursday Trump tweeted: “… I will study this dumb deal!”
Trump spoke to four other leaders on the day of his converation with Turnbull: Japan’s Shinzō Abe, Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s François Hollande, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. He told Turnbull “this was the worst call by far”. Trump was deeply unhappy at the arrangement, which he said could risk letting in the “next Boston bombers”. The two Boston Marathon bombers were of Chechen origin, but Trump has not blocked visitors from Russia, which includes Chechnya. When Turnbull tried to move on to other subjects, such as the Syrian conflict, Trump ended the call, 25 minutes into the scheduled one hour.
Needing to keep Trump onside, Turnbull is keeping shtum on the call, and indeed on Trump’s executive order on immigration. That silence, alongside worldwide protest and a dissenting petition by at least 1000 US State Department officials, was embarrassing enough. Rather more “sad” were statements by Turnbull’s senior ministers. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop − she who said last month that “everyone in Australia you want to see is there” about the VIP tents at the Melbourne Cup – said Australia and the US were one on “border security”. Treasurer and former immigration minister Scott Morrison said Trump’s order showed the world was “catching up” with Australia. “Up” is not the direction of this convergence.
It came as the rise of Steve Bannon as the dark eminence behind Trump was further confirmed by another Trump order, elevating him to full member of his National Security Council and kicking off the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff except when “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed”.
The insertion of a political adviser into this highest strategic and crisis-management council as a standing member is unprecedented. It clips the wings of Trump’s national security adviser, former general Mike Flynn, although he no longer has to put up with the regular company of so many military men with more stars on their shoulders than his three. Trump is getting sick of Flynn, it seems. Not so much by his anti-Islamic tendencies and casual regard for the truth that made “Flynn facts” part of the argot at the Defence Intelligence Agency when he was in charge and got his incoming team dubbed the “Flynnstones” by the outgoing Obama team at the NSC. He talks too much, and cuts across his boss, as he did with British PM Theresa May.
The executive order on immigration was largely Bannon’s work. It was canvassed beforehand with Trump’s appointees as defence secretary, secretary of state and CIA director. A last-minute suggestion by the homeland security secretary that green card holders from the seven countries be exempted was rejected, only to be added once the chaos started at US airports.
Trump insisted it was not an “anti-Muslim” measure, just covering all nationals from those nations. Few are convinced. His call for a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the US until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” was still up on his campaign website this week. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said this week Trump had wanted a Muslim ban but needed “the right way to do it legally.”
Bannon – a rich guy from his former roles as investment banker, movie producer and executive chairman of Breitbart News and therefore respected by Trump – is not so keen on Muslims either, as a nice piece on the Mother Jones website reminds us.
On his radio show before joining Trump’s campaign last year, he hosted numerous “experts” on Islam. Roger Stone talked of an America “where hordes of Islamic madmen are raping, killing, pillaging, defecating in public fountains, harassing private citizens, elderly people – that’s what’s coming”. Pamela Geller said radical Muslims had infiltrated the Obama administration and former CIA director John Brennan may have secretly converted. Bannon himself talked of sharia courts starting “under British law”.
Assisting Bannon at the White House is policy adviser Stephen Miller, who even as an undergraduate in 2007 was active promoting the idea that Western civilisation was at risk from “Islamo-fascism”. He associated with the American white nationalist Richard Spencer, who invented the term “alt-right” that Bannon was proud to attach to Breitbart.
Lurking in the background is Erik Prince, former navy commando and founder of the notorious Blackwater private security enterprise that flourished in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, until its operatives killed 17 civilians in the centre of Baghdad in 2007. Blackwater got broken up, and paid a $US42 million settlement of legal cases with the US Justice Department. Since then Prince has been running a company called Frontier Services Group out of Hong Kong, in partnership with Chinese investment house CITIC. Its services are reported to include provision of light attack aircraft to African conflicts.
Prince’s sister, the billionaire conservative Betsy DeVos, was confirmed this week as Trump’s education secretary. Prince himself was mingling with the Trumps as the presidential election results came in. And he’s been on Bannon’s radio show, too, The Intercept website reminds us. In July he told Bannon the CIA should resurrect the notorious Phoenix assassination program of the Vietnam War to target “the funders of Islamic terror and that would even be the wealthy radical Islamist billionaires funding it from the Middle East, and any of the other illicit activities they’re in”.
Wall Street got the jitters this week, possibly signalling the end of the Trump honeymoon. Corporate America has been pinning hopes on the promised tax cuts and infrastructure splurge, but may have to suffer heavy damage while it waits.
The tiff with Mexico over Trump’s insistence it pay for the wall he intends to build along the border, and Spicer’s suggestion of a 20 per cent tariff on imports from Mexico to pay for it (which would actually be an impost on US consumers), threatened a ruinous trade war with America’s third-biggest trade partner. Another trade battle is ramping up with Japan, and Trump’s China hawks haven’t yet shown their hand.
Now they worry Saturday’s executive order is just the start of an immigration backlash. Reports say another draft order ends the international entrepreneur rule, which entices foreign start-up founders to migrate with their businesses to the US.
During the campaign Trump also promised to end the H-1B visa program used by tech companies to bring in skills from places such as India, and “institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.” Bannon has been telling Trump that Silicon Valley has too many Asian CEOs and that foreign students should return to their home countries.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 4, 2017 as "Turnbull stays shtum as Trump message changes". Subscribe here.