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Politicians, diplomats scramble to repair US-Australian alliance after Trump tweets

Australian and American officials spent Friday scrambling to shore up the US refugee swap deal – and repair the damage to the alliance – amid signs that President Donald Trump could follow through on the agreement with Malcolm Turnbull.

Two of Australia's most respected foreign policy thinkers have warned the US-Australia relationship faced a difficult future.

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On Friday, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said both Australian and US officials were on Nauru looking at individual cases but that there was a "long way to go" before any refugees left.

The comments followed a Reuters news agency report that US officials had postponed interviews with asylum seekers on Nauru.

Despite lingering uncertainty over whether America will honour the refugee resettlement deal, Mr Dutton said US officials had returned to Nauru as planned.

He said getting refugees out of detention in Nauru was "a difficult juggling act".

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"We are keen to get people off there as quickly as possible ... we've got unfinished business," he told 2GB radio. "There's a long way to go before we can get people off."

However he said he remained confident the US would honour the deal, which would see America take refugees from Manus Island and Nauru in return for Australia accepting refugees from Central America.

"I take the president at his word. He has given a commitment to our prime minister," Mr Dutton said.

The developments underscore the uncertainty and magnitude of the task confronting the Turnbull government as it seeks to hold the deal together.

Australia's ambassador to the United States, Joe Hockey, met with Mr Trump's chief of staff Reince Priebus and key advisor Steve Bannon in the White House to discuss the fall-out from the leaked details of the fiery weekend conversation between the two leaders.

Senior members of the Republican Party, including Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Speaker Paul Ryan and a host of Democrats rushed to emphasise the importance of the Australia-US relationship.

Senator McCain, who spoke to Mr Hockey, said the President's treatment of Australia was "an unnecessary and frankly harmful open dispute over an issue which is not nearly as important as United States-Australian co-operation and working together."

Mr Ryan said: "I don't think Australia should be worried about its relationship with our new President or with our country for that matter".

At a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Mr Trump said people should not be worried about the "tough phone calls" he had had with world leaders like Mr Turnbull and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Taking to Twitter on Friday night, he then switched to calling the conversation "very civil".

"Thank you to Prime Minister of Australia for telling the truth about our very civil conversation that FAKE NEWS media lied about," Mr Trump said. "Very nice!"

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer – who repeatedly mispronounced the Prime Minister's name as "Trunbull" – said the President was "unbelievably disappointed" in the refugee deal.

"He has tremendous respect for the Prime Minister and the Australian people, and has agreed to continue to review that deal and to ensure that, as part of the deal, which was always part of it, we would go through a very, very extreme vetting process."

Mr Turnbull said his concern had been to see the deal honoured and that "it's obviously a deal he [Mr Trump] wouldn't have done. He's expressed his views about it. But he has committed to doing it".

"If people in America want to leak or make claims about what was in a conversation, that's disappointing. But I'm not going to do that."

Former Department of Foreign Affairs chief Peter Varghese told Fairfax Media that key pillars of shared interest between the US and Australia "now look quite different under Trump".

"I think we have to manage it and ride it out to some extent … We might find ourselves in a bit like a loveless marriage in which we have to make it work for the sake of the kids but our expectations of each other are going to be quite low."

Andrew Shearer, a former foreign policy adviser to Tony Abbott, who works in Washington at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the leaked conversation between Mr Trump and Mr Turnbull had been a "very difficult episode in the relationship" but suggested the deal would probably go ahead.

"This deal is consistent with a pattern of informal arrangements among major recipients of refugees like the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Britain," he said.

"We shouldn't go looking for something on terrorism or the South China Sea to package up and deliver in return for the US agreeing to this deal. We should make decisions on military commitments and the deployment of warships based on our own assessments. Those have to be rock-solid."

Australian officials pointed out the up-to 1250 people on Manus Island and Nauru would be part of the United States' overall intake of 50,000 people, which has been cut from 110,000.

Mr Trump's first weeks in office – even before the phone call fracas erupted – have sent shockwaves through the Canberra bureaucracy, with diplomats scrambling to deal with the challenge.

Comprehensive assessments are afoot – including in the departments of Foreign Affairs and Defence, and intelligence agencies – to examine the long-term strategic consequences of Mr Trump's policies for the alliance.

Fairfax Media has been told by multiple senior sources that there was no quid pro quo for the refugee swap in the national security sphere, despite suggestions to the contrary.

The government has agreed to take an unspecified number of refugees from Costa Rica who have fled violence in other parts of Central America, but always maintained this is not a people swap with Nauru and Manus Island.

Also late on Friday, a junior adviser to Mr Turnbull was suspended over an "inappropriate" three-month-old Facebook post about Donald Trump.

with Tom McIlroy, Jo Tovey, Michael Koziol

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