Australia’s prime minister on Friday described his first meeting with President Donald Trump as ”more family than formal,” as the Australian ended a brief visit to New York planned to set the tone of bilateral relations with the Republican administration. Trump said on Thursday that his first telephone conversation with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Jan. 28 ”got a little bit testy” when the president reluctantly agreed to honor President Barack Obama’s promise to take up to 1,250 mainly Muslim refugees off Australia’s hands. But Trump denied media reports that the tone was any harsher than that.
Turnbull said he enjoyed the opportunity to get to know the president face-to-face when they met aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Intrepid to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. ”We have backgrounds that are similar in many respects, businessmen that found our way into politics,” Turnbull told reporters. ”It was very, very warm – as I said – more family than formal,” he added. Turnbull’s office released a transcript of the New York press conference on Saturday.
Turnbull, a wealthy 62-year-old former Goldman Sachs partner who first entered parliament in 2004, would not be drawn on the differences between meeting Trump and Obama. ”The two presidents are obviously very different men. But I have been delighted and honored to meet with each of them,” Turnbull said.
The fact that Trump delayed and cut short his meeting with Turnbull irked some in Australia, where morning TV show hosts, pundits and politicians pondered whether it was a snub. The minor Greens party dubbed the delay an embarrassment, and the leader of the main opposition party – hardly a fan of Turnbull’s – voiced his displeasure at the prime minister being temporarily sidelined. ”I’ll be honest – I didn’t like the look of our prime minister being kept waiting for three hours, but I guess there is not much you can do about that,” Labor Party leader Bill Shorten told reporters. ”I hope the meeting was worthwhile.”
Greens leader Richard Di Natale said it was embarrassing that Turnbull had to wait hours for Trump. Di Natale also suggested that Australia reconsider its alliance with the U.S., particularly with such a ”dangerous and deranged president” in charge. ”It’s embarrassing,” Di Natale told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. ”You’ve flown over halfway across the world, he’s stuck in some waiting room in New York and he’s been snubbed by the president of the U.S. I mean, he could have brought him over to Washington, he could have ensured he didn’t treat him as disrespectfully as he has. It says everything about the relationship we’ve got with the U.S.” Turnbull had to achieve a delicate balance with the meeting – mend fences with Trump to get the alliance back on track after the contentious phone call, while also not appearing too deferential to the president, who is deeply unpopular with Australians.
Brendan Thomas-Noone, a research fellow at the United States Studies Center in Sydney, said whether Australians believed Turnbull had been successful in balancing those needs would likely be shaped by the prime minister’s future decisions on Australia’s commitment to America’s various military operations.”I also think the interesting thing will be, as we go forward, to see if the Turnbull government makes announcements about further commitments in the Middle East. And that will play into that perception, whether Turnbull was successful in terms of `standing up’ – in quotations – to Trump or not,” Thomas-Noone said. Turnbull said he did not discuss with Trump any changes to Australia’s military commitment in the Middle East during ”a good, broad discussion.”