On Thursday, the Washington Post published transcripts of calls President Donald Trump had with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shortly after the inauguration. The transcripts revealed a lot, like Trump’s inability to stop talking about his electoral victory even after he was inaugurated and his admission that he doesn’t really consider a wall along the border with Mexico a priority. But perhaps one of the most startling things was Trump’s conversation with Turnbull about refugees.
Trump and Turnbull spoke on the afternoon of January 28—less than than 24 hours after Trump signed the “Protection Of The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” an executive order that temporarily restricted migration from seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen), suspended refugee resettlement, and cut down the number of refugees that would be allowed to enter the country. The Trump administration argued that it wasn’t a Muslim ban — and has maintained the same argument in successive versions of the order — but the order was still notable in how it targeted Muslims. In addition to banning nationals from several Muslim-majority countries, the original ban also contained a specific caveat for non-Muslim refugees. In an interview explaining this, Trump stressed that he believed that Christian refugees have a harder time entering the United States. Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani also admitted that the order was essentially a Muslim ban, and that the focus on national origin came about only after Trump asked him about “the right way to do it legally.”
Now, the transcript of Trump’s call with Turnbull is adding fodder to the argument that Trump’s executive order was intended to target Muslims all along.
In the conversation, Turnbull specifically mentioned Trump’s executive order and its emphasis on Christians.
“We are very much of the same mind,” Turnbull said. “It is very interesting to know how you prioritize the minorities in your Executive Order. This is exactly what we have done with the program to bring in 12,000 Syrian refugees, 90 percent of which will be Christians. It will be quite deliberate and the position I have taken – I have been very open about it – is that it is a tragic fact of life that when the situation in the Middle East settles down – the people that are going to be most unlikely to have a continuing home are those Christian minorities. We have seen that in Iraq and so from our point of view, as a final destination for refugees, that is why we prioritize. It is not a sectarian thing. It is recognition of the practical political realities. We have a similar perspective in that respect.”
In response, Trump does not dispute Turnbull’s description of Christians being prioritized. Instead, he launches into a bizarre tangent about how before “the migration” — a term he chose to belittle the largest refugee crisis since World War II — a Christian from Syria “had no chance of coming to the United States.”
“They were the ones being persecuted,” Trump continued, referring to Christians. “When I say persecuted, I mean their heads were being chopped off. If you were a Muslim, we have nothing against Muslims, but if you were a Muslim you were not persecuted at least to the extent – but if you were a Muslim from Syria that was the number one place to get into the United States from. That was the easiest thing. But if you were a Christian from Syria you have no chance of getting into the United States. I just thought it was an incredible statistic. Totally true – and you have seen the same thing. It is incredible.”
Trump’s concern for Christian minorities in Syria isn’t inherently problematic. But there is no evidence that discriminatory policy is preventing Christian refugees — in Syria or elsewhere — from entering the United States. And the bigger point is this: Trump doesn’t dispute that religion was a key factor in crafting the ban.
Trump’s first iteration of the ban was blocked by a federal court one week later, and the first amendment’s establishment clause on religion was a key factor in the judge’s decision. After multiple court challenges, a second version of the ban was introduced in March. It no longer had a caveat for non-Muslim refugees, but the White House admitted that the new ban was essentially the same as the old one. Admitting that there are only “minor technical differences” led to court challenges for the second ban as well, and again the court ruled on the establishment clause. The Supreme Court now has to weigh in.
The reason that Trump and Turnbull’s call is so important is that the courts have been trying to determine whether the intent behind the order can be taken into account when judging its constitutionality. This could include things like Trump’s repeated call to ban Muslims from the United States while he was on the campaign trail, Giuliani’s admission about doing a Muslim ban “legally,” and now, Trump and Turnbull’s discussion about prioritizing Christian refugees. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in October 10 and eventually make the call on intent.
The rest of the call between Turnbull and Trump is worth reading in full in order to understand how both leaders, who both espouse xenophobic policies, discuss refugees in private. The discussion of Trump’s executive order launched a fuller conversation about an agreement made under the Obama administration for the two countries to essentially swap refugees — where the United States would accept 1,250 refugees from Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka who have been detained on the Pacific islands of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and in return, Australia would accept Central American refugees detained in U.S. camps in Costa Rica.
Trump said he was worried that if he announced he would uphold the agreement, shortly after calling for a suspension on refugee resettlement, that would make him “look awfully bad,” adding that in recent years, “the United States has become like a dumping ground.”
In one particularly horrifying exchange, Trump actually compliments Turnbull for being even “worse” than him for detaining people for several years and not allowing them to enter Australia.
TRUMP: Why haven’t you let them out? Why have you not let them into your society?
TURNBULL: Okay, I will explain why. It is not because they are bad people. It is because in order to stop people smugglers, we had to deprive them of the product. So we said if you try to come to Australia by boat, even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Noble [sic] Prize winning genius, we will not let you in. Because the problem with the people —
TRUMP: That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am.
The two leaders also criticize Germany’s open door policy towards refugees, Trump calls himself “the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country,” and Turnbull spends an inordinate amount of time criticizing people who flee by boat. Trump also at one point flat out says his call with Turnbull is the most unpleasant one he had all day — even more unpleasant than the call with Russian President Vladimir Putin — because he doesn’t want to take in the refugees. “I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad,” he said. “That is why they are in prison right now. They are not going to be wonderful people who go on to work for the local milk people.”