Drama is swirling around the Donald Trump/Scott Morrison September phone call. But perhaps the key question is: what prompted Australia’s US Ambassador Joe Hockey to write to American Justice Department chief William Barr about the issue, in swift and enthusiastic terms, a full four months earlier?
Hockey’s May letter to Barr, offering to assist in the investigation into the FBI’s Russia probe, was sent without any formal request from the Americans and reflects our ambassador’s “how high?” reaction whenever the Trump administration asks him to jump.
Based on the letter, Trump and Barr might have expected an early response from Hockey and Canberra, but it appears not to have moved very quickly — if at all.
Perhaps Trump groused to Hockey during one of their golf days, but by September, with nothing to show for the ambassador’s promise of “standing ready” to use our “best endeavours”, the president returned to the matter.
With a state visit by Morrison just weeks away, Trump called the PM and, according to The New York Times, pressed for greater cooperation on getting to the bottom of a drinks meeting in London between Australia’s former UK high commissioner Alexander Downer and then-junior Trump campaign operative George Papadopoulos.
Neither the White House nor the Prime Minister’s Office have been too forthcoming about that call beyond acknowledging it took place, and that it was not that big a deal.
Officials in Canberra have said the matter was not raised in talks between Trump and Morrison during the US visit in late-September. Given Trump’s obsession with the parallel conspiracies of the origins of the Russia probe and the Ukrainian “corruption” thread, this is hard to believe.
Even if we do take this “nothing was raised” suggestion at face value, there remain two official responses from Australia to requests from the US attorney-general and the president to shake the tree on the Downer/Papadopolous meeting.
This in itself is extraordinary. Downer is one of the elder statesmen of the Australian Liberal Party with the title of the country’s longest serving foreign minister at the top of his CV. The man he met with — a 30-year-old self-promoter wandering around Europe on errands unclear — was convicted for lying to the FBI and spent 12 days in jail as a result.
While it might be a little strange that someone like Downer would take meeting with a campaign worker representing a candidate who was at the time given no chance of winning the 2016 election, there is nothing that we know to even suggest he did anything wrong or had any sinister motive at the time or since.
The weird Downer/Papadopoulos theory is central to a singularly madcap conspiracy emanating in Washington and promulgated in conservative media outlets such as Fox News.
Many say the meeting in London between Papadopoulos and Downer was the trigger for all things Mueller. That’s highly contestable and, given what the US intelligence community was already looking at in 2016, very doubtful.
As has been reported extensively in the US, the FBI and intelligence agencies had picked up foreign interference in the electoral systems of many states as early as May 2016 and were running layers of investigation on those disruptions through until the vote in November. Former president Barack Obama went public with the concerns of the US intelligence community less than a month before the election. He wanted to make the matter public earlier, but the Republicans in Congress wouldn’t sign onto a joint statement.
To backtrack a little, the Downer/Papadopoulos meeting happened on May 10, about two weeks after Papadopoulos met a Moscow-linked academic in Rome. In the days after the meeting, Downer sent a record back to Canberra, including the suggestion the Kremlin might have material to discredit the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Separate to all this, the foreign interference in the US really kicked into gear with the hacking of the Democratic National Committee at about the same time senior Trump officials met with a Kremlin-linked source who claimed to have material on Clinton.
While the US would have seen the Downer 2016 report to Canberra under our close intelligence sharing arrangements, it is a ridiculously long bow to say this would have spurred the FBI and other agencies into action.
To summarise where we are: the Australian government has jumped on a conspiracy bus being driven by an out-of-control US president who is fighting for his political life.
If Trump falls at the hands of Congress or the voters, we could end up in November 2020 on the other side of the fence from a new Democratic president and administration who will certainly not forget and probably not forgive what we are currently doing.
Dennis Atkins is a freelance writer based in Brisbane where he was a national political editor during the Howard government. He is filling in for part of the time while Bernard Keane is enjoying a break.