Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull broke confidence earlier this week, spilling on his previously private engagements with both Presidents Obama and Trump.
Throughout the tome entitled “A Bigger Picture,” Turnbull offers character assessments of various world leaders, and perhaps none were more eyebrow-raising than his disclosure of President Barack Obama’s own appraisal of then-candidate Donald Trump.
The former prime minister made an official visit to the White House in January 2016, during which he recounts Obama as saying, “Don’t worry Malcolm, the American people will never elect a lunatic to sit in this office.”
Furthermore, upon the launch of his memoirs on Monday, Turnbull proved himself a lively raconteur of his unconventional interactions with President Trump. The book, which has reportedly already sold over 50,000 copies, dedicates a chapter to the relationship, which began with the leaked transcript of a bitter phone call in which Trump is said to have hung-up and ended with the two leaders being rather chummy — at one point even composing a tweet together.
Turnbull admits that few governments around the world were prepared for Trump’s election, despite having had the Australian government’s bureaucracy (among others, he notes) draw up “elaborate psychological analyses” which invariably concluded “that Trump was a narcissist who would respond well to flattery.” Turnbull won praise during his tenure as being one of the few leaders of a U.S–aligned nation to spare his country from Trump’s persistent attacks on trade and security; he won an exemption from U.S steel and aluminium tariffs and successfully followed-through on a refugee swap deal negotiated under the Obama Administration. This came while the leaders of other U.S allies — France, Germany and South Korea to name a few — found themselves the targets of Trump’s constant haranguing.
The book also sheds some insight on what goes on behind the scenes of Trump’s infamous tweets. In a revelation that suggests the Twitter bon mots are far more premeditated than they may appear, Turnbull recounts that when the text of a tweet — composed by both leaders together at a summit — was later released with a slightly different text, he was assured by the Trump Administration that nothing had changed; any additions were merely “inserted by the White House lawyers.”
On Trump’s negotiation skills, the former prime minister could be bracing, assessing the Trump-Kim ‘bromance’ by writing, “so far, at least, the leader of the most powerful nation in the world appears to have been out manoeuvred by the tyrant leader of a bankrupt slave-state.” That is perhaps an unremarkable observation, but it is somewhat unique to hear firsthand the withering frustration world leaders feel at Trump’s impotent foreign policy, especially relating to the so–called hermit kingdom.
Turnbull, for his part, believes he owes his successful dealings with Trump to ignoring official advice to flatter the president; indeed, an advisor suggested to “lay it on with a trowel.” Rather, the former prime minister writes, “the one thing I had learnt about bullies, is that sucking up to them is precisely the wrong way to go.” Turnbull argues that Trump expects deference and therefore no thanks or praise could be gained through acceding to his will, believing rather that a leader has to stand their ground to earn ‘a bully’s’ respect, if not affection.
And when it comes to affection, Turnbull’s astonishment at his dealings with the U.S president should not be conflated with any sense of endearment.
“[Trump] says America is more respected than ever – it depends what you mean by respect,” said Turnbull. Strength is respected when it is matched with values consistently advanced. Around the world, Trump’s deliberate unpredictability generates fear rather than respect, anxiety rather than certainty.”
While diverting from his official advice, the former prime minister’s engagement with the U.S president was not without analysis, the memoir even going on to explain the thought–process behind Australia’s various entreaties. Turnbull writes, “[Trump is] more of a listener than a reader. So, to be effective, a letter has to be short and punchy and written not just to be read, but to be read aloud like a script.”
As world leaders throughout Trump’s tenure leave office and pen their memoirs, no doubt many will echo the sentiment of Turnbull, who closed his chapter on the U.S leader’s efforts by noting, “looked at from afar, America seems more divided, angry and polarised than I can remember.”
“America may be stronger in economic and military terms, but its influence is diminished. In fact, under Trump, America seeks less influence.”
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Pete Souza