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Transcripts: Trump Told Mexican President Border Wall Is 'Least Important Thing'

President Trump speaks on the phone with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull from the Oval Office in January. Details have emerged about the heated conversation.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
President Trump speaks on the phone with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull from the Oval Office in January. Details have emerged about the heated conversation.

Way back at the start of his presidency, Donald Trump created a stir with his first calls to leaders of U.S. allies. It was reported that he had angrily cut off a call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and, in a call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, threatened to send military personnel to Mexico to deal with "bad hombres" (the Mexican government disputed this).

Now, new details of the conversations have emerged, via transcripts obtained by The Washington Post. The excerpts printed by the Post show a president cajoling and heatedly arguing with the two foreign leaders. The transcripts do not stray from the initial reporting on the calls — as in late January and early February, they show a president fixated on immigration and trying to burnish his image — but they provide some new insights into the president's pugilistic demeanor in dealing with even nations who have good relations with the U.S.

The Trump administration is, for now, being reticent about the leaked transcripts. National Security Council spokesperson Michael Anton told NPR that he "can't confirm or deny the authenticity of allegedly leaked classified documents."

Here are highlights:

Saying his border wall is the "least important" topic

The transcripts say that Trump told Peña Nieto that the border wall is "the least important thing we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important."

This is a startling admission from a president who at rallies led his supporters in chants of "build the wall."

But the wall was important to his base. Although it has not been popular nationally — a February poll from the Pew Research Center found that 62 percent of Americans oppose such a wall — it polled well among conservative Republicans, with 80 percent approving.

Asking Peña Nieto to stop talking about not paying for the wall

Trump repeatedly assured his supporters that Mexico would pay for the border wall. Peña Nieto disagreed; on Jan. 25, the Mexican president told his nation in a televised address that they "would not pay" for the wall, according to The Los Angeles Times.

In the call with Peña Nieto on Jan. 27, Trump asked him to knock it off: "If you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that."

Trump also said he had to push for Mexico to pay for the wall because he had promised it for so long.

"I have to have Mexico pay for the wall — I have to," he said. "I have been talking about it for a two-year period."

Other quotes reported by the Post indicate that Trump was vague about how exactly the funding of the border wall would work. He said that the funding for it "will work out in the formula somehow" and that it would "come out in the wash," according to the Post.

On the wall itself, Peña Nieto stood firm. "My position has been and will continue to be very firm, saying that Mexico cannot pay for the wall," he said. However, the Post also writes that he eventually relented on talking about the wall, agreeing to "stop talking about the wall."

In a Jan. 27 statement, the White House had acknowledged the two presidents' clashing opinions on the topic of the wall: "With respect to payment for the border wall, both presidents recognize their clear and very public differences of positions on this issue but have agreed to work these differences out as part of a comprehensive discussion on all aspects of the bilateral relationship."

Calling New Hampshire a "drug-infested den"

Trump bemoaned America's drug problem to Peña Nieto, then cited it as a reason for what he believed to be his success in New Hampshire.

"We have a massive drug problem where kids are becoming addicted to drugs because the drugs are being sold for less money than candy," he said. "I won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den."

New Hampshire is one of the epicenters of the current U.S. drug crisis. In 2015, New Hampshire had the second-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation, at 34.3 per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Trump did not win New Hampshire in the general election. Hillary Clinton did. He did, however, win it in the Republican primaries.

Heroin does come into the U.S. across the U.S.-Mexico border; as PolitiFact noted in September, Mexico is the source for a substantial portion of the heroin entering the U.S. In 2012, 45 percent of the heroin coming into the U.S. came from Mexico.

Getting furious with Turnbull

In February, it was reported that Trump and Turnbull had argued about an Obama-era deal to accept refugees. The Obama administration had agreed to accept around 1,200 refugees being held on islands near Australia, and Australia would accept refugees from Central America.

Trump vehemently pushed against the deal, according to the Post.

"This is going to kill me," he said to Turnbull. "I am the world's greatest person that does not want to let people into the country. And now I am agreeing to take 2,000 people."

He believed that the refugees could be dangerous, and even potential terrorists.

"I guarantee you they are bad. 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," he said. (The Post surmised that "local milk people" may be a reference to dairy farmers.)

The president later added that the refugees might "become the Boston bomber in five years."

Since then, the Trump administration has seemed to be sticking with the deal. In April, during a visit to Australia, Vice President Pence said that the administration — albeit unenthusiastically — would accept the refugees.

"President Trump has made it clear that we'll honor the agreement — that doesn't mean we admire the agreement," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.