The US and Australia have traditionally been close allies
Trump and Turnbull have had rough patches
President Donald Trump may have been hoping to smooth ties with his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull Thursday.
But instead of improving a relationship that started off rocky, Trump found himself delaying an already-brief meeting with the prime minister to bask in the thrall of his first big legislative victory.
The sit-down was originally due to occur in a midtown Manhattan hotel. But as the US House of Representatives voted on a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Trump decided to remain in Washington to welcome Republicans for a valedictory event in the Rose Garden.
He told Turnbull over the phone that he’d meet him later in the day. Instead of sitting down in the hotel, the pair will meet instead aboard the USS Intrepid, where they’ll mark the anniversary of an important World War II battle.
The downgrade in the two men’s talks has some officials close to the Australian leader quietly wondering whether they’d been slighted.
An official working with the Australian government called the President’s decision to delay a meeting by a few hours with Turnbull “an amazing snub.” The official spoke privately to frankly discuss internal conversations.
The relationship between Trump and Turnbull was already being closely watched after a heated phone call between the two leaders in January. Trump erupted during that call, blasting a deal reached in the Obama administration for allowing 1,250 refugees from an Australian detention center in the Pacific to come to the US after passing security screening.
Trump later tweeted the agreement was a “dumb deal” and vowed to study the pact.
The meeting Thursday was going to be something of a reset, even though Vice President Mike Pence told Turnbull last month in Australia that the US would honor its agreement.
A senior White House official said the President called and explained the delay. The official called it unavoidable because the President wanted to mark the House health care victory.
“It’s not a snub,” the official said.
Not the usual trappings
The two leaders are set to meet Thursday evening at the Intrepid museum at a dinner to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, a key moment in World War II where the United States and Australian navies first halted Japanese advancement in the Pacific.
But the session is expected to be shorter, and doesn’t include the usual trappings that Trump has offered to visiting foreign leaders at the White House.
Since taking office, Trump has met more than a dozen foreign counterparts in the Oval Office, regularly greeting them when their cars pull up to the West Wing and sitting down for lunch.
In some cases, Trump has been eager to appear on camera with his guests. When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited in April, Trump greeted him at the West Wing, shook hands in the Oval Office, and brought in cameras to see him sitting for talks in the Cabinet Room, in the Rose Garden and in the State Dining Room.
Australia is a key US partner on trade and security, and Sisi has led a human rights crackdown in Egypt, so the differences between the two meetings are notable.
Hosting the meeting on the Intrepid will, however, underscore the close military ties between the two countries. The US has partnered with Australia in Afghanistan, and Trump is expected to discuss North Korea with Turnbull on Thursday.
On the surface, Trump and Turnbull have characteristics in common. Both are wealthy and came from the business world before entering politics. Turnbull, like Trump, has an outsized personality and a flair for showmanship.
Before leaving office, former President Barack Obama encouraged Turnbull – along with British Prime Minister Theresa May – to develop close ties to Trump, hoping they would act as a moderating and sobering force on the incoming US President.
When news of Trump’s hostile phone call with Turnbull emerged, many were surprised that it was the Australians – of all people – who were the target of his temper.
Briefing reporters Thursday, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump and Turnbull had a “great conversation” to discuss the changing schedule.
“They’re very much looking forward to meeting later this evening,” she said.