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As Donald Trump faces the threat of impeachment, Scott Morrison is carefully balancing his responses to the US president’s request for assistance. By Karen Middleton.

Trump call pulls Morrison into US scandal

Prime Minister Scott Morrison can control how much Australian intelligence he gives United States President Donald Trump.

What he can’t control is what the president does with it.

Inside the Australian government, this is the concern that’s dictating the tone of public and private responses as the American president seeks to discredit the FBI’s Mueller inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 US election and asks his ally for help.

Morrison has confirmed Australia will co-operate with US Attorney-General William Barr’s investigation into US law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ activity relating to the Trump 2016 presidential election campaign and whether this activity was legal.

Trump’s personal request for co-operation, delivered in a phone call to Morrison a fortnight before the PM’s official visit to the US last month, was revealed in The New York Times on Monday.

The newspaper said a transcript of the call was being kept on a special secure server, also home to the transcript of a separate call to the Ukrainian president that is now at the centre of impeachment proceedings.

Australia does not fully transcribe such calls but keeps summary notes.

The day after his Oval Office talks with Trump last month, Morrison was asked whether they had discussed declassifying documents relating to Alexander Downer’s London meeting.

“These were not issues that were there for discussion,” he said, adding that private conversations remained private.

Asked on Wednesday if Trump had described the request as a “favour”, Morrison said: “No, not that I recall at all.”

With Trump now facing an impeachment inquiry over the unrelated Ukrainian phone call, Australian officials are highly aware they are dealing with an administration and a president under existential pressure.

They are also aware that the occupants of the Trump White House have shown considerably less regard for the normal rules and protocols of America’s bilateral relationships than their predecessors.

That makes assisting the US investigation a little dangerous for Australia. But the Australian government has calculated it would be more dangerous to refuse.

Morrison effectively confirmed this in his first public response to the New York Times piece – an interview with Sky News more than 24 hours later.

“We’d said we were prepared to assist and co-operate with that investigation, which is not unusual,” Morrison said on Wednesday.

“I mean, the United States is a significant – in fact our most significant – ally and we’re used to sharing a lot of information. Now, Australia would never do anything contrary to our national interests, but this would have been, I think, frankly more surprising had we chosen not to co-operate.”

Professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University John Blaxland agrees.

“Were we not to co-operate, it would be toxic,” he says.

Blaxland says the political dimension complicates this request more than others made under the so-called Five Eyes intelligence arrangements that Australia has with the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

“I think they’ve probably done a risk assessment on the options and the option of not co-operating with the Trump administration was more damaging to Australia’s interests,” he says.

Australia generally assists when asked, provided a request is lawful and not against its national interest.

Discretion lies in the extent and nature of that assistance.

Notwithstanding concerns about Trump’s temperament and motivation, the government assesses it was justified and lawful.

Security sources told The Saturday Paper the FBI’s unorthodox role in the US election campaign led it to that conclusion.

Its assessment goes to the way the FBI conducted itself during the northern summer of 2016 in the lead-up to the presidential election and afterwards.

On July 31, 2016, the FBI began investigating alleged links between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Eleven days from the November 8 election day, the then FBI director, James Comey, reopened an earlier investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, having previously found nothing unlawful.

Nine days after this – just two days before the election – he announced it had reached the same conclusion.

As president, in May 2017, Trump sacked Comey. By then, several congressional committees – and the FBI – were examining the Russia–Trump allegations and former FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel, taking over the Russia–Trump investigation.

Another two FBI officers were fired during the course of the Mueller investigation, for making partisan comments interpreted as suggesting they may be seeking to damage the president.

Australian sources note that if officers of an Australian investigative agency demonstrated bias against a prime minister or an opposition leader during an election-related investigation, they would also be sacked – or worse.

On the basis of that recent US history, sources say the government considers the assistance request is legitimate. But how it was made – and how Australia’s co-operation might be portrayed or intelligence used – raises significant political considerations as well.

A former Australian ambassador to Washington, John McCarthy, said obligation must be weighed against risk.

“My advice, given this particular administration in the United States, which is not an administration which is high on ethics, [is] … be extremely careful what you say,” McCarthy told the ABC’s RN Breakfast program on Wednesday.

“… It could go anywhere with this particular group. You’re not dealing with [former US secretary of state and White House chief of staff] James Baker, you’re not dealing with the Bushes. You’re dealing with an entirely different crowd of people with ethics which are highly questionable. Be extremely careful how you reply to this guy.”

A member of the Australian security community echoes the view that Trump could politicise Australian intelligence.

“It won’t be misused by Barr,” the source tells The Saturday Paper. “It won’t be misused by the Justice Department. It may be grossly and inaccurately mischaracterised by Trump.”

Australia’s involvement in America’s political furore comes via former high commissioner to Britain and former foreign minister Alexander Downer and what happened when he met a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, then 28-year-old George Papadopoulos, for a drink in a London bar in 2016.

According to Downer, during the wide-ranging May 10 conversation at the Kensington Wine Rooms – where they drank gin and tonic – Papadopoulos mentioned the Trump campaign was aware the Russian government had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The next day, Downer sent a three-page cable to Canberra, reporting what he had heard.

Australia sat on the Russia information – it’s not clear why – until WikiLeaks published leaked Clinton emails in July 2016. The government then passed a summary of Downer’s information to the US. That information sparked the Mueller inquiry, which Mueller confirmed in his March 2019 report, without naming Downer or Australia.

In April, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade released a heavily redacted version of that cable to BuzzFeed News, in response to a freedom of information request lodged 15 months earlier. Its content was almost entirely blocked out.

Trump’s request of Morrison relates to Downer’s role.

There won’t be any Australian investigation into Downer because Australia’s security agencies can’t investigate unless an offence has been committed under Australian law.

There is no suggestion that Downer committed any offence. He simply did what a diplomat does and reported what he heard.

On Tuesday this week, just after the New York Times story broke, Downer gave an interview to ABC Radio National, prearranged to discuss other issues.

“I had a conversation with this guy,” Downer said of Papadopoulos. “I passed on the conversation … that one element of the conversation to the Americans, and I mean there’s just nothing more to it.”

Papadopoulos, who was jailed for 12 days for misleading the Mueller inquiry, has said he can’t remember mentioning Russia to Downer. He accuses Downer of being a spy and part of a “deep state” anti-Trump conspiracy – something Downer dismisses as fanciful and wrong.

Morrison is not ruling out Barr’s investigators interviewing Downer.

“We will co-operate with these sorts of requests and you know that is a matter for DFAT and those individuals to facilitate,” he said. “… I mean our officials are quite capable of managing what are fairly non-controversial matters.”

But, he added, “No information should be shared that is contrary to Australia’s national interest, and none will be.”

In an unusual move, the government authorised the release on Tuesday of an apparently unsolicited letter written to Barr by the Australian ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, on May 28. “The Australian Government will use its best endeavours to support your efforts in this matter,” Hockey wrote. “While Australia’s former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Alexander Downer, is no longer employed by the Government, we stand ready to provide you with all relevant information to support your inquiries.”

The letter was copied to the White House acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.

Hockey’s letter followed comments President Trump made four days earlier, about Barr’s investigation.

“So what I’ve done is I’ve declassified everything,” Trump had said. “He [Attorney-General Barr] can look. And I hope he looks at the UK, and I hope he looks at Australia, I hope he looks at Ukraine. I hope he looks at everything. Because there was a hoax that was perpetrated on our country.”

Releasing the Hockey letter allowed Morrison to demonstrate that Australia had already considered the matter before Trump called.

The federal opposition is suggesting Morrison’s red-carpet treatment during his recent US visit might have been a reward.

“Prime Minister Morrison got a very warm, indeed special, reception from President Trump,” frontbencher and former Labor leader Bill Shorten said this week. “Mr Morrison needs to clean up the perception that perhaps the special reception was returned for special favours done.”

Shorten’s successor, Anthony Albanese, said questions remained about the phone call and what Australia was promising.

The government argues that as Morrison’s trip was arranged months ago, it is false to suggest it was laid on in return for any assurance, apparently including the one volunteered in Hockey’s May letter.

Morrison rejected Labor’s analysis as “immature” – an accusation he has levelled repeatedly at Albanese in particular.

“It was a very brief conversation and it was not one that I’d characterise as being ladled [sic] with pressure,” Morrison said. “It was a fairly polite request for something that the Australian government had already made pretty clear that we were quite happy to do.”

But with Trump having cancelled a trip to Denmark after the country’s prime minister refused his request to buy Greenland, the personal phone call just before a scheduled visit could be seen as applying pressure.

Morrison’s emphasis on the sequence of events appears designed to inoculate Australia – and possibly Trump – against any suggestion the president pressured him.

That is an issue at the heart of the president’s impeachment troubles.

They stem from the unrelated telephone call with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump is accused of leveraging military aid in pressing his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate the family of Trump’s political rival and candidate for the Democratic 2020 presidential nomination, former vice-president Joe Biden. Trump denies the allegations.

In a tweet on Thursday, he denounced them as “bullshit” and later suggested congressional Democrats were engaging in treason.

John Blaxland believes Morrison’s undertakings are aimed at more than fulfilling alliance obligations.

“This is Scott Morrison playing with a pretty straight bat and the language is sufficiently cautious to give Australia leeway to respond,” Blaxland tells The Saturday Paper. “He needed to do something that would make Trump happy – so Australia is onside.”

Morrison and his ministers are understood to believe the “straight bat” approach is the best protection from being dragged further into the US impeachment morass. Amid promises to do what is “appropriate”, it’s possible nothing further will be provided on the grounds that nothing more exists.

They want to be seen to be following the rules and protocols to the letter, regardless of what Trump does.

The prime minister downplayed the Trump call as “a fairly uneventful conversation” that was only seeking an Australian point of contact on behalf of William Barr. He declined to agree that a presidential phone call elevated it significantly above “uneventful” or that the investigation itself was political.

“We’ve got certainly nothing to hide,” he said. “We’re not the subject of this investigation nor are we a party to it.”

Morrison, the minister for Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne, and cabinet’s national security committee must now determine whether they provide Downer’s cable and any other relevant documents in full, partially redacted, summarised further or not at all. Another option would be to enable US officials to read documents but not keep a copy.

Morrison suggested providing cables in full was unlikely.

“That would be very unusual,” he said. Pressed on Sky News to clarify, he said: “Well, it would be a very unusual thing to do and Australia would never do anything that would prejudice our national interests.”

Asked a third time, he responded: “I’m just saying that that would be a very unusual thing to do. That would be very uncommon.”

John Blaxland says while it is unusual, it is far from unprecedented – especially among Five Eyes partners. On whether Australia might want to protect other content that is potentially embarrassing, he also notes that the once-frank language used in diplomatic cables has changed considerably since WikiLeaks’ activities increased the chances they could be made public.

“In the post-Assange era, cable writers are much more circumspect than they used to be, because people know that one day there’s a high chance it’s going to end up on the streets,” he says.

He also says providing full cables could lead to similar requests from other countries.

Beyond political considerations, the transfer of intelligence is governed by a specific treaty between Australia and the US. It provides that transferred material retains at least the same security classification as it had in the source country.

Australian officials are also expected to seek official assurances from the US that any information – whether by document or interview – will be properly protected and handled.

There is one more twist – at least thus far – in the already knotty and bizarre tale of who said what to whom over gin and tonics in London three years ago and how much more will be revealed about it.

It’s in who signed that intelligence transfer treaty on Australia’s behalf back in 2002, the one now governing this process.

It was the then foreign minister, Alexander Downer.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 5, 2019 as "Trump call pulls Morrison into US scandal".

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Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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