By Justin Sink
WASHINGTON — Leaked transcripts of phone conversations between Donald Trump and two world leaders show the U.S. president relentlessly focused on his political image and underscore some of the difficulty he has had navigating foreign affairs.
The conversations between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto during Trump’s first week in office offer a window into the president’s occasionally fraught relationships with other world leaders and his approach to negotiating toward his goals.
While some details had been previously reported, full transcripts of the calls, produced by White House staff, were published Thursday by The Washington Post. The Post didn’t reveal how it obtained the transcripts.
Revelations include Trump describing his proposed border wall to Mexico’s president as “the least important thing we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important.” He implores Pena Nieto to stop saying publicly that Mexico won’t pay for its construction, arguing they could work out a deal so that the cost would “come out in the wash.”
In his call with Turnbull, the president vents about the Australian prime minister’s insistence that Trump honor a deal struck by former President Barack Obama’s administration to allow 1,250 refugees housed by Australia into the U.S.
“This is going to kill me,” Trump told Turnbull, calling the deal “stupid” and saying it “will make me look terrible.” The president goes on to describe the phone call — which capped a marathon day in which he also spoke to the leaders of Russia, Germany, Japan, and France — as his worst call of the bunch.
“I have had it,” Trump tells Turnbull. “I have been making these calls all day and this is the most unpleasant call all day. (Russian President Vladimir) Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous.”
The White House declined to comment when asked about the transcripts. But the release of the documents, compiled by White House staff and circulated within national security departments and agencies, demonstrates that the administration is still struggling to tamp down on leaks that appear intended to damage his presidency. Administration officials have previously expressed frustration with the revelations, saying they impair the ability of the president to candidly speak with world leaders.
The conversations are peppered with the president’s signature braggadocio and flair for the politically incorrect.
He tells the Mexican president that he “won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den.” Democrat Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire’s electoral votes in the general election, though Trump did win the Republican primary there. The comment has drawn criticism from Democratic lawmakers in the state, with Senator Maggie Hassan calling the characterization “disgusting” and Senator Jeanne Shaheen saying Trump owed New Hampshire an apology.
Trump also claims to have earned the votes of a “large percentage of Hispanic voters,” brags about the size of his campaign crowds, and offers to help “big league” with Mexico’s “pretty tough hombres” responsible for the drug trade.
The transcripts show Pena Nieto and Turnbull struggling to reconcile Trump’s words with the norms of international diplomacy, the actual terms of trade and migration deals, and his publicly professed positions.
When Pena Nieto says that he will continue to be firm in saying Mexico could not pay for the wall, Trump implores him to not say so to the media.
“The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that,” Trump said. “You cannot say that to the press because I cannot negotiate under those circumstances.”
Pena Nieto’s office subsequently said in a statement that the two leaders agreed to stop publicly talking about who would pay for the wall. But Trump said just before meeting with the Mexican president at the G-20 summit last month in Germany that Mexico “absolutely” should pay for the barrier, though he didn’t raise the issue with Pena Nieto.
At one point in their phone call, Trump also seems to threaten Mexico with a border tax on imports, saying he was contemplating 35 percent tariffs on products “ripped from their foundation” in the U.S. and moved to Mexico, with lower rates imposed on other goods. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer floated that idea to reporters days later, only for the White House to retreat publicly from the idea.
Pena Nieto says he is “surprised” by Trump’s tariff idea, saying it deviated from the staff-level discussions between their nations.
“The proposal that you are making is completely new, vis-a-vis the conversations our two teams have been having,” the Mexican president said.
The conversations also foreshadow some of the broader foreign policy headaches that have plagued the president’s first six months in office.
Trump got a frosty reception at a pair of world summits in Europe, with traditional U.S. allies expressing frustration with his willingness to go back on deals negotiated by the Obama administration. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord left the U.S. isolated during that discussion at last month’s G-20 summit in Germany.
The U.S. president’s focus on catchphrases and threats has also proven a sticking point among traditional allies. Germany’s Angela Merkel has signaled frustration with Trump’s insistence that her country, whose trade relations with the U.S. are governed by a broader European deal, is exploiting U.S.-German trade. The president’s insistent suggestions that NATO allies owe back payments to the alliance because of a mutual agreement for each country to reach a certain defense spending goal has also earned eye-rolls within Europe.
Trump’s gruff and occasionally confrontational manner has also ruffled feathers and led to memorable diplomatic moments, from shoving his way to the front of a G-20 family photo to awkward handshakes with other leaders.
And while Trump frequently said on the campaign trail that he would use his business acumen to pressure China into curbing North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions, provocations have continued. Earlier this week, Trump tweeted he was “very disappointed” with China over the issue.