The Great Australian Nothingburger


The hills are alive with the sound of shrieking (because it’s a day ending with -day) from the Democrats and their PR wing in the mainstream media, with the new revelations that Trump asked the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison for assistance to clarify Australia’s role in getting the “Russia collusion” story going back in 2016. As The New York Times, which broke the story, reported:

President Trump pushed the Australian prime minister during a recent telephone call to help Attorney General William P. Barr gather information for a Justice Department inquiry that Mr. Trump hopes will discredit the Mueller investigation, according to two American officials with knowledge of the call.

The White House restricted access to the call’s transcript to a small group of the president’s aides, one of the officials said, an unusual decision that is similar to the handling of a July call with the Ukrainian president that is at the heart of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump. Like that call, the discussion with Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia shows the extent to which Mr. Trump sees the attorney general as a critical partner in his goal to show that the Mueller investigation had corrupt and partisan origins, and the extent that Mr. Trump sees the Justice Department inquiry as a potential way to gain leverage over America’s closest allies.

And like the call with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, the discussion with Mr. Morrison shows the president using high-level diplomacy to advance his personal political interests.

President Trump initiated the discussion in recent weeks with Mr. Morrison explicitly for the purpose of requesting Australia’s help in the Justice Department review of the Russia investigation, according to the two people with knowledge of the discussion. Mr. Barr requested that Mr. Trump speak to Mr. Morrison, one of the people said. It came only weeks after Mr. Trump seemed to make military aid to Ukraine contingent on Mr. Zelensky doing him the “favor” of helping Mr. Barr with his work…

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did a spokesperson for the Australian prime minister.

In making the request, Mr. Trump was in effect asking the Australian government to investigate itself. The F.B.I.’s counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election began after Australian officials told the bureau that the Russian government had made overtures to the Trump campaign about releasing political damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

“The president using high-level diplomacy to advance his personal political interests” seems to be one of those political irregular verbs. Apparently, if the American government, through its agencies, requests and/or receives information from other countries pertinent to its investigations, it’s entirely appropriate if it’s to establish that a Republican candidate committed treason by conspiring with foreigner powers to damage political opponent. If, however, it’s to try to investigate the origin and the conduct such an investigation – which might show Trump was being set up – it’s clearly an outrage that calls for impeachment. Allied government – such as the United States and Australia – routinely share information in intelligence, law enforcement and diplomatic contexts; I fail to see anything inappropriate or out of ordinary in the current situation – except, of course, Orange Man Bad. In any case, as the local media reports, the Australian government has already made an offer to cooperate on this matter with the American authorities back in May, when Trump first mooted his intention to find out the role played by foreign intelligence agencies and governments in feeding the collusion story.

As the NYT mentions, the “Russiagate” has its genesis in a strange meeting in London in May 2016 between the then junior policy adviser on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, George Papadopoulos, and Australia’s former conservative Foreign Minister and the then High Commissioner (ambassador) to Great Britain, Alexander Downer. Over a few wines, Papadopoulos apparently mentioned to Downer that the Russians had some political dirt on Hillary Clinton, which they might use during the campaign (a story, which Papadopoulos, in turn, heard from another shadowy figure, Maltese academic Joseph Mifsud). This tidbit Downer subsequently shared with the American authorities.

A number of questions about the whole affair remains unanswered. How did this unusual meeting come about in the first place? Who requested and who organised it and why? What exactly was said during the meeting and why? How did the report about Papadopoulos’s words reach the American and who did it reach? Did Downer write a cable to the Foreign Ministry in Australia? Was the information handled by Australian diplomats only or by the intelligence personnel too? Was it passed to the FBI, the CIA or the State Department? Were the normal channels used, or as some stories suggest, was the Australian ambassador to the US used as a direct conduit?

Papadopoulos himself thinks the whole thing was a set-up, with Downer conspiring with the “deep state” to get Trump. He now repeatedly refers to Downer as a “Clinton errand boy”. This is most unlikely. While the “moderate” wing of Australia’s Liberal Party generally identifies more with the Democrats than the Republican (both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister at the time in 2016, Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop, came from that side of the party), Alexander Downer has always been a man of the right. Australia’s longest serving Foreign Minister under John Howard’s leadership, he was on excellent terms with the Bush administration in the course of the War on Terror and war in Iraq. I have heard nothing to indicate he carries any water for Hillary Clinton or anyone else on the American left, either ideologically or institutionally, though as anyone who has spent a long time in international affairs he no doubt is familiar with many of the key players.

I doubt any conspiracy theories that the American “Swamp” somehow conspired with the Australian authorities to set off the first domino of the Russiagate investigation. It seems like a very round-about way to go about it and doesn’t quite ring true at the Australian end. But that does not mean we shouldn’t learn more about just exactly what happened, when and how, seeing that the ensuing controversy has been shaking American politics to their core over the past three years. If the President is not a Russian agent or a traitor, which for all the effort on the part of numerous investigator no one has come anywhere close to rationally demonstrating, we need to know at the other extreme if there was a high level conspiracy to destroy his standing and prevent his election. Maybe that’s also not the case – maybe it’s just a usual intelligence world “wilderness of mirrors” – we are talking, after all, about people who couldn’t foresee the fall of communism, didn’t prevent 9/11 and misread Iraq – but, again, we need to and deserve to know.