World

Donald Trump oversells Mueller investigation findings. NZ prime minister heads to China. Serious questions about Thailand’s election. Benjamin Netanyahu in surprise TV interview. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Foreign policy challenge next for Jacinda Ardern

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern addresses the media this week.
Credit: Marty Melville / AFP / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: The Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States presidential election involved 19 lawyers and 40 FBI agents, issued 2800 subpoenas, interviewed 500 witnesses, and led to charges against 34 people.

After 22 months, it reached two firm conclusions – Russia directly tried to influence the election to benefit Donald Trump and the Trump campaign did not conspire to assist in these activities. But it declined to answer the remaining question: did Trump illegally obstruct the investigation?

This result – no charges were recommended – was a victory for Trump, who quickly oversold the findings.

“There was no obstruction and – none whatsoever,” he said. “It was a complete and total exoneration.”

Except that it wasn’t.

The report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has not been released. Instead, the public has only been given a four-page summary by the attorney-general, William Barr, who plans to release a redacted version of the full report. Meanwhile, on the obstruction question, Barr included this direct quote from Mueller: “... while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

Mueller’s indecision left it to Barr, and his deputy, to decide whether to prosecute Trump. They decided not to.

It is not clear why Mueller believed he could not reach a finding. He may have been reluctant to charge a president with obstructing an investigation after finding that the underlying crime – collusion with Russia – did not occur.

But the investigation now seems unlikely to end the partisan acrimony surrounding Trump’s election. Barr was appointed last year, just months after writing an unsolicited 19-page memo denouncing the investigation of Trump’s alleged obstruction of justice. The memo was sent to justice officials and Trump’s lawyers and it helped to secure him the job of attorney-general.

Now it is Barr, not Mueller, who has effectively exonerated the president. Both will likely be forced to testify before congressional inquiries. The public will slowly discover the details surrounding Trump’s dealings and reach its own views on whether the criminality of his conduct was, as Mueller claimed, inconclusive.

AUSTRALIA’S BACKYARD

New Zealand: For the past fortnight, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has simultaneously tried to unite her grieving nation and move quickly to adopt measures that could prevent a repeat of the devastating Christchurch attack. “People want answers,” she said this week, as she announced a royal commission into the events leading up to the mass shooting at two mosques by a white supremacist.

On Sunday, she will have to shift focus from domestic to foreign affairs when she travels to China for a diplomatic mission to rebuild her country’s ties with one of its most important trade partners. Relations between the two nations have been frayed since November 2018, when New Zealand raised concerns about involving Chinese-owned telecommunications firm Huawei in the building of its 5G mobile network.

Ardern has downplayed the tensions and dismissed suggestions her trip was delayed by Beijing. On Monday, she announced her visit but did not mention Huawei. She evidently believed it was necessary to go to China, even in the aftermath of Christchurch, though she shortened the trip to just 24 hours. Chinese officials, she said, had been “incredibly accommodating” of the need to adjust the itinerary.

New Zealand was the first Western country to reach a free-trade deal with China and, unlike the US and Australia, it joined President Xi Jinping’s globe-spanning Belt and Road infrastructure scheme.

But China has been increasingly willing to punish countries that adopt positions it dislikes and appears to have been angry about the Huawei decision, as well as New Zealand’s efforts to combat Chinese foreign interference and Chinese influence in the Pacific. Ardern said her talks will focus on trade and climate change. Her main goal, however, will be to mend ties. New Zealand has a population of about five million, compared with China’s 1.4 billion – Ardern has little choice but to jump at the chance to meet with its two leaders, even if the trip means taking precious time away from her immediate task of helping her country heal.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Thailand: On Tuesday, Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power in a coup in 2014, spoke to the media for the first time after an election heralded to sweep in a revival of democracy in the nation. He did not take questions.

“Try to respect the people’s voice,” he said. “That’s all.”

But it is still unclear what the Thai people voted for, and it is unlikely the military junta will respect a result that leaves it without power.

Initial results indicated that Prayuth’s Palang Pracharat Party did better than expected, receiving more votes than any other party. The opposition Pheu Thai Party, backed by exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, appears to have won the most seats.

Yet there are serious questions about the ballot. Several election observer groups said the military had pressured or paid for voters to support Prayuth’s party. Some provinces reportedly recorded more votes than the number of registered voters.

Thailand’s election commission repeatedly delayed releasing the results and then said it would not release the final tally until May 9. However, the result is unlikely to end Thailand’s long-running standoff between the pro-military royalist camp, whose support base is in Bangkok, and the rural-based backers of Shinawatra-linked parties. Both sides claim they can form a coalition. The military has the power to appoint 250 of the 750 parliamentary members though, meaning Prayuth’s party needs just 126 of the 500 elected seats to win. He is expected to pass this threshold and to remain in control of a country with a political system that is firmly in his favour, even if its people are not.

SPOTLIGHT: ISRAELI ELECTIONS

Last Saturday night, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on his way from Jerusalem to Ben Gurion Airport for a flight to the US when he made a sudden detour and stopped at the television studios of Channel 12.

It was a surprising move. Netanyahu had not given a televised interview in more than three years. Last Saturday’s interview came in the midst of a turbulent campaign, ahead of an election on April 9. During the campaign, Netanyahu has faced two serious setbacks: Israel’s attorney-general announcing plans to indict him on corruption charges, and the emergence of a serious political rival – Benny Gantz, a former military chief. Gantz’s party includes two prominent retired military leaders and former television presenter Yair Lapid, who has a sizeable support base.

Last week, further corruption allegations emerged against Netanyahu involving his approval of submarine and warship sales by a German company to Israel and Egypt. The prime minister allegedly owned shares in a company that supplied the German firm and sold them for a profit of more than $US3 million.

It was these allegations that prompted the surprise visit to Channel 12 by Netanyahu, who typically uses social media to spread his message. On air, he denied making an unlawful profit and claimed Gantz was spreading a “blood libel”. After the interview, Netanyahu flew to Washington, where Donald Trump, defying the international community, recognised Israel’s authority over the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria during the 1967 war. But this mid-campaign gift from Trump was overshadowed by another development – a long-range rocket was fired from Gaza and landed in a village north of Tel Aviv, wounding seven people.

Netanyahu, whose campaign is centred on his national security credentials, ordered retaliation strikes before rushing back to Israel. Shortly after, Israel and Hamas reached a ceasefire. Netanyahu appeared to want to avoid a full-scale war in Gaza, which could prove inconclusive and leave much of Israel in bomb shelters in the lead-up to polling day.

But these latest twists further confirmed this campaign is all about Netanyahu, which, despite the odd setback, probably suits him. As he seeks to become Israel’s longest-serving leader, his pitch to the nation is that its fate depends on him.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 30, 2019 as "China challenge next for Ardern". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.