I have no direct access to President Trump or his supporters, but perhaps someone could pass on this fact to them: Australia is not involved in a conspiracy against the president. Its government, if anything, can be accused of being overly keen to please.
This week, news emerged of another Trump phone call to a foreign leader: this time, asking Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to reveal his country’s role in prompting the Mueller inquiry. Australia’s task, it seems, was to find a smoking gun, implicating itself, and then to hand that gun to the president.
It’s a tough request, even for a country historically happy to accede to every U.S. demand. The main problem: There is no smoking gun, and there is no conspiracy.
Yet even Trump himself seems to think we have questions to answer. Back in May, when asking Attorney General William P. Barr to investigate the FBI probe into his campaign’s Russian connections, Trump placed Australia on the list: “I hope he looks at the UK and I hope he looks at Australia and I hope he looks at Ukraine.”
On Oct. 1, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed back against request by House Democrats to depose five State Department officials in the Ukraine probe. (Reuters)
At issue is the role played by Australia’s former foreign minister, Alexander Downer, in sparking the FBI probe. In May 2016, Downer was Australia’s high commissioner in London. According to Downer’s account, he had a meeting during which George Papadopoulos, then a Trump adviser, bragged that Russia had information on Hillary Clinton, the release of which would help determine the election result.
Downer told Canberra what Papadopoulos had said and, under the Five Eyes system of security cooperation among the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, that information was dutifully conveyed to Australia’s ally, the United States.
Somehow, in the frenzy of U.S. politics, this tale of a garrulous aide and a diplomat doing his job has become an effort to undermine the president.
Papadopoulos himself has led the charge, devoting a chapter of his memoir to the man he calls the “Devil from Down Under” and suggesting that Downer was part of a clever operation that aimed to trigger an investigation into the Trump campaign. In a tweet this week, he continued the attack: “I have been right about Downer from the beginning. A wannabe spy and Clinton errand boy who is about to get exposed on the world stage.”
Viewed through Australian eyes, this characterization of Downer as a secretive Democrat is absurd.
The most charitable explanation is a confusion over political terminology. Yes, Downer is a “Liberal”, but in Australian politics “Liberal,” with a capital L, refers to the ruling Liberal Party — the main conservative force. And Downer is a conservative from central casting: Patrician in manner and nicknamed “Lord Downer” by one columnist, he is the son of a Liberal minister in the Robert Menzies government, and the grandson of a conservative 19th-century premier of South Australia. Downer was Liberal leader in the mid-1990s, before becoming our longest-serving foreign minister. As the conservative columnist Greg Sheridan explained this week: “I have known Downer very well for a long time and can tell you there are few more ideologically dedicated conservatives on God’s green planet.”
Even stranger, Trump’s phone call requesting assistance was quite unnecessary. As a spokesman for the Australian federal government put it this week: “The Australian Government has always been ready to assist and cooperate with efforts that help shed further light on the matters under investigation."
In fact, Australia’s ambassador to Washington, Joe Hockey, wrote to Barr in May to offer Australia’s help. In a letter made public this week, he said that Australia would “use its best endeavours to support your efforts in this matter."
Some have compared the Trump/Morrison call to that between Trump and the Ukrainian president. It’s an unlikely comparison. While reluctant to be drawn into divisive domestic politics, Australia has always been ready to help. No threats or bribes are required.
It’s useful, though, to understand what that “help” would probably involve. It would mean asking Downer to repeat the perfectly believable story that he has already told countless times.
Australia is a good ally: loyal, some say, to a fault. The idea that it has been part of a conspiracy against Trump is as insulting as it is delusional. And Trump’s phone call was either pointless or — safe in the knowledge that it would be leaked — an effort to breathe fresh life into theories that suit the president’s domestic agenda.
Either way, this hardly seems the way to treat a friend.