Washington: President Donald Trump pushed the Australian prime minister during a recent telephone call to help Attorney General William Barr gather information for a Justice Department inquiry that Trump hopes will discredit the Mueller investigation, according to two US 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 Trump. Like that call, the discussion with Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia shows the extent to which 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 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 Zelenskiy, the discussion with Morrison shows the president using high-level diplomacy to advance his personal political interests.
Trump initiated the discussion in recent weeks with 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. Barr requested that Trump speak to Morrison, one of the people said. It came only weeks after Trump seemed to make military aid to Ukraine contingent on Zelenskiy doing him the “favour” of helping 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, Trump was in effect asking the Australian government to investigate itself. The FBI’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.
Australian officials shared that information after its top official in Britain met in London in May 2016 with George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who told the Australian about the Russian dirt on Clinton.
Papadopoulos also said that he had heard that the Russians had “thousands” of Clinton’s emails from Joseph Mifsud, an academic. Mifsud, who was last seen working as a visiting professor in Rome, has disappeared. Trump allies, like the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, have put forth an unsubstantiated claim that Western intelligence agencies planted Mifsud to trap Papadopoulos.
Barr flew to Italy last week and met with Italian government officials Friday. The Justice Department spokeswoman would not say whether he discussed the election inquiry in those meetings, but former Justice Department officials said that Barr would need to ask foreign countries for cooperation in turning over documents pertaining to the 2016 election.
Barr began a review of the Russia investigation this year with the stated goal of determining whether law enforcement or intelligence officials acted inappropriately in their decision during the height of the 2016 presidential campaign to begin investigating whether the Trump campaign was conspiring with Russia’s election interference. But the president has made no secret he sees a larger purpose: to validate his victory and to settle scores with his perceived “deep state” enemies.
The Justice Department said last week that it is exploring the extent to which other countries, including Ukraine, “played a role in the counterintelligence investigation directed at the Trump campaign.” At the very least, Barr has made it clear that he sees his work treading into sensitive territory: how the law enforcement and intelligence agencies of the United States’ closest allies share information with US officials.
Mueller’s investigation confirmed that Australia played a central role in the origins of the original FBI investigation, even if his final report does not mention the country by name. It said that information from a “foreign government” prompted the FBI to “open an investigation into whether individuals associated with the Trump campaign were coordinating with the Russian government in its interference activities.”
But like so much about the preelection period, the episode has been the subject of a counternarrative marbled with conspiracy: that the Obama administration had dispatched the Australian official, Alexander Downer, to spy on the Trump campaign as part of a broader effort to help Clinton get elected. There is no evidence to support this, but the conspiracy has been advanced by some of the president’s allies in Congress, by some Fox News commentators and in frequent tweets by Papadopoulos, who was sentenced last year to two weeks in prison for lying to FBI agents in the Russia inquiry who questioned him about any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intermediaries.
Morrison, the Australian prime minister, met Trump in Washington this month for official meetings and a state dinner at the White House. Barr attended the dinner.
The attorney general sparked a controversy in April when he said during congressional testimony that “spying” on the Trump campaign had taken place as part of the Russia investigation and that there was a “failure among a group of leaders at the upper echelons” of the intelligence community. He later announced that he was reviewing the origins of the Russia investigation, and Trump said, “I am so proud of our attorney general that he is looking into it.”
In May, Trump told reporters that he wanted his attorney general to scrutinize all of the countries that he believes conspired to damage his 2016 election hopes. He said he hopes Barr “looks at the U.K., and I hope he looks at Australia, and I hope he looks at Ukraine. I hope he looks at everything because there was a hoax that was perpetrated on our country.”
Barr appointed a career prosecutor, John H. Durham, to lead the inquiry, but US officials said that the attorney general has taken an active role in overseeing Durham’s work. That has fueled concerns that Trump has personally directed his attorney general to micromanage a law enforcement inquiry to advance the president’s political agenda.
Justice Department officials have said that it would be neither illegal nor untoward for Trump to ask world leaders to cooperate with Barr. And it is within Barr’s powers to speak with foreign law enforcement officials about what his prosecutor needs from them.
The president and his allies have been open about their view that Durham’s review is potentially helpful for the White House. Stephen Miller, a top adviser to Trump, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the president initiated the July call with Zelenskiy in part to discuss “the collusion investigation that is inflicted so much pain and damage to our country” and that “the attorney general has appointed somebody from the Justice Department to look into that issue.”
But separately Sunday, the president’s first homeland security adviser, Thomas P. Bossert, said the theory that the Ukrainian government had intervened in 2016 on behalf of the Clinton campaign had been “completely debunked.” Bossert said on ABC’s “This Week” that he had relayed that to the president and was “deeply disturbed” that he pushed Zelenskiy to find evidence to support the unsubstantiated accusation.
Trump has said that he did not order Barr to conduct a review, but he did grant the attorney general broad powers to declassify any intelligence involved in the Russia investigation — a move that also essentially stripped the CIA of its power to choose which national security information should remain secret.