Friday, August 4, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

A psychological drama
The Trump–Turnbull phone call was fascinating


There are three things to say about the leaked transcript of the Trump–Turnbull call from January this year. The first is that nothing of what was said is particularly surprising. The second is that it is still a fascinating document, an unfiltered record of the way powerful leaders handle each other. The third is that it seems clear that the government lied. This, too, is sadly unremarkable.

The document reads like a screenplay depicting a negotiation between two men dancing around each other, perhaps one of those classic studies of performative power by David Mamet, or Martin Scorsese. The tension comes not because anything changes, but because, as each pushes at the psychology of the other, they realise that nothing is going to happen. One is less pleased than the other about this. Everyone ends the scene with exactly what they had going in.

The phone call begins with diplomatic small talk – someone’s reminded Donald Trump about the Greg Norman connection, they both agree ISIS is bad, and Trump reckons, against recent evidence, that their shared business backgrounds are serving them well in the current “crazy climate”.

Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t get straight to the point, and Trump might have missed the reference, but it’s very clear from the start that the prime minister knows exactly where he’s heading: talking about a recent chat with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Turnbull says, “We reflected on how our policies have helped to inform your approach.” We’re on the same side, he’s saying. Our approach to border security is a shared one – in fact, you’ve copied us.

That’s because Turnbull has just one goal, and that is to lock Trump in behind the deal Turnbull made with Barack Obama, to take a large number of refugees from Nauru and Manus Island.

That is where the conversation goes next. The PM says, “I do understand you are inclined to a different point of view than the vice president,” presumably meaning Trump does not like the idea of sticking with the deal. And Trump immediately begins arguing that the deal will make him look bad, given he’s just said he’ll stop people coming to America, and also that he really needs to stop people coming, both for political reasons and to protect against the threat of terrorist attacks.

Turnbull goes into polite but firm mode, saying “Can you hear me out, Mr President?”, and when Trump agrees to do so Turnbull points out that the US does not have to take anyone (because they will all be subject to vetting), that America is getting things in return, and that a deal should be respected.

That is, in essence, the shape of the rest of the conversation. Trump will raise an objection – say, that the deal was with Obama – or he will ask a valid question, like why hasn’t the government let the refugees into Australia. Turnbull patiently gives answers. He finds areas of agreement with Trump – like Germany’s mistakes – where possible. And he pushes back when Trump seeks to exaggerate the difficulties with the Australian deal.

To me, that is one of the two essential aspects of the transcript. Turnbull pushes back a lot. Reading through the transcript again, it is remarkable how often Turnbull disagrees with Trump, either on facts or on his reading – and this shows real chutzpah – of the American political situation. Trump predicts he will get killed on this thing domestically, and Turnbull bluntly says, “You will not.”

The second aspect is that it reads to me as though Trump went into the call expecting to agree to the deal. Trump spends the entire call raising objections. But he has already decided how to explain it to Americans. Halfway through the call this exchange occurs:

Turnbull: I think that what you could say is that the Australian government is consistent with the principles set out in the executive order.
Trump: No, I do not want to say that. I will just have to say that unfortunately I will have to live with what was said by Obama. I will say I hate it.

Later on, after Turnbull has made the case that Trump can agree to the deal but ultimately refuse to take anybody, the president returns to this point, demonstrating that he does indeed understand deals by getting right to the heart of the matter:

Trump: Suppose I vet them closely and I do not take any?
Turnbull: That is the point I have been trying to make.
Trump: How does that help you?
Turnbull: Well, we assume that we will act in good faith.

Trump has nailed Turnbull in this exchange. The PM has been pushed to concede that while Trump technically could take nobody, he actually expects the president to end up taking a bunch. Trump could easily have chosen to use this as a tipping point, but he did not.

My sense – and it is not possible to be sure of anything from a transcript – is that Trump went in expecting to stick to the deal. That doesn’t mean the result was guaranteed. The two leaders were pushing at each other and seeing what happened. If Trump had encountered weakness, perhaps he would have broken the agreement. Turnbull sensed this, and pushed back strongly. Trump saw early on what was happening, and spent the rest of the call making the point that he was incredibly unhappy, both because Trump is endlessly petulant and because making sure someone knows they owe you is always a helpful thing.

In other words, the phone call is exactly what you might expect from the two men, and still utterly fascinating to watch play out.

The quotations some people are jumping up and down about are not spectacular. Turnbull’s argument that the US did not have to take anyone was factual, and he admitted in the same call that he didn’t expect that to be the case. Turnbull said he wouldn’t even take a Nobel prize-winner if they arrived by boat – we know this already. He said he was a “transactional businessman” because he thought Trump would respond to that description.

What is disturbing – or should be, if our political culture still valued truth – is that it seems clear that both Turnbull and his government have lied. We have been told there was no “people swap” deal with the US. But during the phone call Turnbull told Trump that Australia would “hold up our end of the bargain by taking in our country [people] that you need to move on from”.  He also said, “We will take more. We will take anyone that you want us to take.” If that’s not a people-swap then the term has no meaning. But then Peter Dutton has admitted this before. Similarly, Turnbull confirmed to Trump that Australia had complete control over the offshore detention centres, despite the government’s continued insistence that they are not really the government’s responsibility. But, again, we all knew that. The government lies when it’s convenient. We knew that too.

In other news


Under the covers

David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’ successfully combines sorrow, absurdity and the supernatural

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“Like or leave the film’s potential preposterousness, there is nevertheless a pleasantly languid reverie at play here – a reminder of the passage of time. Of death and sorrow. Everywhere, people want to leave traces; A Ghost Story reminds us how no trace really lasts. Hats off in any case to any film that nudges us to ponder even if only for a moment the rapturous terrors of geological, let alone cosmological, time.”  READ ON


A new location, familiar terrain

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan bring their signature banter – and talk of mortality – on ‘The Trip to Spain’

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Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for Fairfax and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.



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