I had thought to take short rest from this. The news cycle had shifted the Supreme Court nomination, an issue that is predictable and so widely covered that I will let it go. But an item in yesterday’s Washington Post, front page, caught my attention.
Trump, the Post reported, had had, on 28th January, an angry telephone confrontation with Prime Minister of Australia that resulted in the President cutting short the scheduled call and slamming down the receiver. The Australian PM had reminded Trump of an agreement made by the Obama administration to accept 1,250 Iraqi refugees from one of Australia’s notorious island refugee holding facilities. This, an enraged Trump said, “will kill me politically,” meaning that it would undercut the significance of his action of the previous day, the executive order barring any refugees from certain Middle East countries, including Iraq. “You are sending me the next Boston bomber,” he said.
President Trump blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a refugee agreement and boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win, according to senior U.S. officials briefed on the Saturday exchange. Then, 25 minutes into what was expected to be an hour-long call, Trump abruptly ended it. At one point, Trump informed Turnbull that he had spoken with four other world leaders that day—including Russian President Vladimir Putin—and that “this was the worst call by far.
What a way to speak to a head of state, especially an important ally, I thought. The art of the deal must involve bullying. What a way to speak to anyone, come to think of it. I read further down. The Post refers to similar hostile phone calls, including the call on the 25th of January with the Mexican President, Peña Nieto.
Trump also vented anger and touted his political accomplishments in a tense conversation with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, officials said. The two have sparred for months over Trump’s vow to force Mexico to pay for construction of a border wall between the two countries, a conflict that prompted Peña Nieto to cancel a planned meeting with Trump.
Even in conversations marred by hostile exchanges, Trump manages to work in references to his election accomplishments. U.S. officials said that he used his calls with Turnbull and Peña Nieto to mention his election win or the size of the crowd at his inauguration.
By chance, minutes after reading this, I stumbled on a short article in Le Monde that said that Trump had threatened to invade Mexico! Since French political chaos was the lead story in that 02/02 Le Monde, this was a bit down the page. The story had a quotation of Trump’s words from a Mexican source, which they cited and to which they provided a link. I followed it to a long story in a Mexican journalism site (live links to both these stories is provided below. I speak better Spanish than I do French so translate from the original.)
“You have a lot of bad guys there. You are not doing enough to round them up. I think your army is afraid. Ours isn’t, so I could send them there to take charge.”
The original story, in Aristegui Noticias, says that Trump’s tone in the conversation was hostile and humiliating, even menacing. Trump further said, “I have no need for Mexico or for Mexicans and that he will build the wall and Mexico would pay for it whether you (the plural, Ustedes ) like it or not.” His rudeness went on, saying that he had never really wanted to visit Mexico the past August, during the campaign. The Mexican President is described as being rattled and mumbling his responses. After the call, Peña Nieto cancelled his visit to the US. The source appears to have been a Mexican from their foreign office who sat in on the call, spoke English, and took notes. Steve Bannon was apparently with Trump at the American end.
I then went to Mexico’s national newspaper, La Jornada, where a banner-size front page headline announced a full-court press of political damage control by the Mexican President who, weak and unpopular, cannot appear to have been humiliated or bullied by Trump. The telephone call is described as cordial and civil, and the invasion remark is denied.
The Washington Post, which has chosen not to repeat the threat to invade, would appear to support the characterization of the call as bullying and irrational. The political cartoonists for La Jornada, covered the story of the phone call.
The voice balloon for Trump says “We will send in our troops to do what our agents were never able to do.” This apparently refers to the DEA agents who have been working with the Mexicans for years to curtail the drug lords.
The voice balloon of the Mexican President, says “I don’t believe they will build the wall. How would they invade us if there is a wall.” Thus, diplomacy Trump style, less than two weeks into the next four years.
An unrelated news story of great significance going forward
On the evening of 2nd February, Chris Matthews, on his syndicated NBC show, interviewed Trump special advisor, Kellyanne Conway. The discussion turned to the executive order barring immigrants from Iraq. Ms. Conway justified the action as being necessary to prevent another “Bowling Green Massacre.” Matthews said he’d never heard of a massacre in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Conway replied that he hadn’t because the story had been suppressed, not reported. She does all this a with a straight face, dead serious, the voice of a senior and trusted advisor to the President of the United States.
There has never been a Bowling Green Massacre, nothing even close. Ms. Conway is the originator of the “alternative facts” theory of truthfulness. It might be tempting to treat this as laughable, something to mock, as indeed some in the twitter world did, people claiming to have survived the massacre, witnessing heroic action by Brian Williams, etc. But we can be sure that there was an opposite and probably much larger universe of twitterers that believed Ms. Conway and that believed that the “dishonest media” had in fact suppressed this story.
What is going on here is of the gravest importance to the survivability of the democracy. Trump and his gang are constantly pushing down on the media, trying to discredit it, trying to suggest that there nothing, no facts, that can be trusted. Except of course, theirs, their version. It is part of their plan. And it is a plan. It is a subject I will return to. Ms. Conway, challenged, said later that day that it had been an “honest mistake.” It wasn’t. It was a testing of the boundaries.