Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Morrison dragged into Trump’s mire

As if Scott Morrison hasn’t got enough on his plate, now he has been dragged into the quagmire of Donald Trump’s increasingly ugly campaign to cling to office. The invitation to attend the September summit of G7 world leaders in the United States would normally be a feather in the cap for an Australian prime minister. Now it only complicates Australia’s interests at home and abroad.

The September meeting coincides with the expiry of the government’s multibillion-dollar economic support and stimulus packages – and it will come after the June quarter national accounts confirm the country is officially in recession. Already this week the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, conceded that reality has hit home. He based that on Treasury advice that the next three months will be worse than the past quarter, which saw a 0.3 per cent decline in gross domestic product. The three-decade run of uninterrupted growth has succumbed to the coronavirus, with bleak prospects of a quick recovery.

The “economic Armageddon” Frydenberg talks about is being made worse by the chaotic shambles Trump’s America has become. His mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic has seen 40 million Americans join the dole queues in 10 weeks – and more than 100,000 deaths. The US economy is expected to have contracted 5 per cent in the quarter.

Make no mistake, the president’s disruption of the international trading order; his capricious dealing with allies, including Australia; and his trade war, particularly with China, makes us all losers. And making it worse, if that’s possible, is the president’s fanning of the flames of hatred and division within America. The pent-up anger, released when a white policeman killed yet another black American, has also thrown the spotlight back on Australia’s race relations and our record on Aboriginal deaths in custody.

A Sydney Black Lives Matter protest had demonstrators chanting “I can’t breathe” – the last words of George Floyd in Minnesota. They were also the last words of 26-year-old David Dungay, a Dunghutti man who died in Long Bay jail in 2015 as warders restrained him. He repeated the phrase 10 times. No one was charged over that death.

The Australian protest coincided with the brutal arrest of an Aboriginal teenager in Surry Hills. Images of the boy’s legs being kicked out from beneath him and his face being driven into the ground turned up on the evening news. A white policeman was placed on restricted duties and an internal investigation launched.

On Tuesday morning the White House arranged a phone call between the president and Scott Morrison. The prime minister took it in his Canberra office. Unbeknown to Morrison, before Trump made the call he indulged in one of his more provocative escapades, having police violently remove peaceful protesters so he could stage a campaign stunt outside a nearby historic church.

On the orders of Trump’s attorney-general, federal police fired tear gas into the crowd, ramming their shields into demonstrators and media crews. This is the tenor of Trump’s belligerent defiance. Channel Seven cameraman Tim Myers and reporter Amelia Brace were both struck by police outside the White House while reporting live on air. Brace was also shot with a rubber bullet.

A bruised and sore Brace later appeared on Channel Seven, saying the police ignored her cries of “media”. She said they were “quite violent and they do not care who they’re targeting at the moment”.

Minutes later, flanked by his daughter and son-in-law and others, the US president walked across Lafayette Square, through the security provided by a menacing honour guard of riot shields, automatic weapons and steel truncheons.

The president stood in front of a boarded-up St John’s Episcopal Church, which had been firebombed the night before. He held up a Bible for the cameras. A reporter yelled, “Is that your Bible?” For once, his answer did not need fact-checking. Trump replied: “It’s a Bible.”

The Episcopal bishop of Washington, Mariann Budde, was outraged. She condemned the president for holding up the Bible. She told The Washington Post the Bible “declares that God is love, and when everything [Trump] has said and done is to inflame violence”. Presumptive Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden echoed the sentiment in a rare public appearance, saying it’s a pity Trump didn’t read the Bible.

Trump’s base of evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics might be impressed by this show. The Catholic archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, an African American, certainly isn’t. He condemned the president’s second visit to a religious place, a shrine honouring Pope John Paul II. Gregory said it was “baffling and reprehensible”. He hit out at the shrine or “any Catholic facility” that “would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated”.

According to the White House’s version, the US riots were not mentioned in the conversation between Morrison and the president. The Australian version says “both leaders discussed the distressing situation in the United States and efforts to ensure it would be resolved peacefully”.

The Australian readout didn’t mention the attack on the Seven news crew because the prime minister’s office (PMO) says Morrison was unaware of it at the time of the call. He has since offered support to the network to lodge a formal complaint. He has also asked the Australian embassy to provide further advice on registering Australia’s strong concerns with the responsible authorities in Washington.

What Morrison thinks of Trump’s efforts at “peaceful resolution” is unclear. If he were aware of the president’s “total domination” call, given a few hours before they spoke, he would have no reason to be impressed. The speech in the White House Rose Garden, punctured by the sound of exploding tear gas nearby, promised “we are going to clamp down very, very strong”. Trump called on governors to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers to “dominate the streets”. He said that if cities and states fail to act against the riots, “then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them”.

Some wonder if the embattled president is planning his own version of Tiananmen Square, where Chinese army tanks and soldiers massacred innocent protesters in 1989. The prospect of an American president sooling the might of the US military on his own citizens is horrifying. Perhaps explaining the braggadocio is the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll. It found challenger Joe Biden’s lead over Trump among registered voters had expanded to 10 percentage points.

There’s more than a hint in the Canberra readout that Morrison knows being caught up in Trump’s election campaign flailing is dangerous. The statement from the PMO reminds us that French President Emmanuel Macron had invited Australia to the last G7, and it gives “a significant opportunity to promote our interests during highly uncertain times in the global economy. It’s important for Australians that we are there.”

Shadow Foreign minister Penny Wong says it’s also important that Morrison does more than join a Trump cheer squad. She says he should “be making representations as a friend and an ally about the need for leaders to unite America”. She says a government’s legitimacy does depend on people seeing their “behaviour as legitimate, as demonstrating justice and equality”. Wong said if she were Foreign minister, or prime minister, that is the message she would be sending Trump.

Wong is unimpressed with Trump inviting Russia’s Vladimir Putin to attend the summit. Russia was kicked out of the then G8 six years ago after it annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and a few months later a Russian missile shot down a Malaysia Airlines jet, killing 298 people including 38 Australians. Wong says the prime minister should make it clear to Trump “Australia’s strong views about Russia” and its “failure to bring the perpetrators of the downing of MH17 to justice”.

In the end, Morrison may not have to be this brave. Canada and Britain have expressed their opposition to the Putin invitation. Whether Trump takes any notice, or is prepared to torpedo the summit rather than withdraw his invitation to the Russian strongman, remains to be seen.

The president’s overtures to Putin are particularly brazen given the Mueller inquiry’s suspicion that the Russian government aided and abetted interference in the previous presidential election. The special prosecutor had no doubts there was Russian interference; maybe with his back to the wall, Trump is desperate for the same help again.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 6, 2020 as "Bogged down by desperate Trump".

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Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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