Trump Pressuring Other Foreign Leaders For Information About Rivals
It's not just Ukraine.
The Trump Administration’s efforts to pressure foreign nations to aid in the investigation of political rivals does not appear to have been limited to Ukraine and the Bidens. Late yesterday, for example, it was reported that President Trump pressed the Prime Minister of Australia for help in investigating the origins of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 Presidential election:
WASHINGTON — President Trump pushed the Australian prime minister during a recent telephone call to help Attorney General William P. Barr gather information for a Justice Department inquiry that Mr. Trump hopes will discredit the Mueller investigation, according to two American officials with knowledge of the call.
The White House curbed access to a transcript of the call — which the president made at Mr. Barr’s request — to a small group of aides, one of the officials said. The restriction was unusual and similar to the handling of a July call with the Ukrainian president that is at the heart of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
Like that call, Mr. Trump’s discussion with Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia shows the president using high-level diplomacy to advance his personal political interests.
The discussion with Mr. Morrison shows the extent to which Mr. Trump views the attorney general as a crucial partner: The president is using federal law enforcement powers to aid his political prospects, settle scores with his perceived “deep state” enemies and show that the Mueller investigation had corrupt, partisan origins.
Mr. Trump initiated the discussion with Mr. Morrison in recent weeks explicitly for the purpose of requesting Australia’s help in the review, according to the two people with knowledge of the discussion.
In making the request — one of many at Mr. Barr’s behest — Mr. Trump was in effect asking the Australian government to investigate itself. F.B.I. investigators began examining Trump ties to Russia’s 2016 election interference after Australian officials reported that Russian intermediaries had made overtures to Trump advisers about releasing information that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Australia’s top diplomat in Britain had met in London in May 2016 with George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who revealed the Russian offer of dirt on Mrs. Clinton.
Mr. Papadopoulos also said that he had heard from an academic named Joseph Mifsud that the Russians had “thousands” of Mrs. Clinton’s emails. Mr. Mifsud, who was last seen working as a visiting professor in Rome, has disappeared. Trump allies including Mr. Giuliani have put forth an unsubstantiated claim that Western intelligence agencies planted Mr. Mifsud to trap Mr. Papadopoulos.
At the same time, The Washington Post is reporting that Attorney General William Barr pressed foreign officials for information to aid an apparently ongoing Justice Department investigation into the Mueller probe, an investigation largely based on conspiracy theories spread by Fox News and other right-wing news sources:
Attorney General William P. Barr has held private meetings overseas with foreign intelligence officials seeking their help in a Justice Department inquiry that President Trump hopes will discredit U.S. intelligence agencies’ examination of possible connections between Russia and members of the Trump campaign during the 2016 election, according to people familiar with the matter.
Barr’s personal involvement is likely to stoke further criticism from Democrats pursuing impeachment that he is helping the Trump administration use executive branch powers to augment investigations aimed primarily at the president’s adversaries.
But the high-level Justice Department focus on intelligence operatives’ conduct is likely to cheer Trump and other conservatives for whom “investigate the investigators” has become a rallying cry. Barr has voiced his own concerns, telling lawmakers in April that he believed “spying did occur” when it came to the U.S. investigation of the Trump campaign.
The direct involvement of the nation’s top law enforcement official shows the priority Barr places on the investigation being conducted by John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, who has been assigned the sensitive task of reviewing U.S. intelligence work surrounding the 2016 election and its aftermath.
The attorney general’s active role also underscores the degree to which a nearly three-year-old election still consumes significant resources and attention inside the federal government. Current and former intelligence and law enforcement officials expressed frustration and alarm Monday that the head of the Justice Department was taking such a direct role in reexamining what they view as conspiracy theories and baseless allegations of misconduct.
Barr has already made overtures to British intelligence officials, and last week the attorney general traveled to Italy, where he and Durham met senior Italian government officials and Barr asked the Italians to assist Durham, according to one person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue. It was not Barr’s first trip to Italy to meet intelligence officials, the person said. The Trump administration has made similar requests of Australia, said people who discussed the interactions on the condition of anonymity because they involve an ongoing investigation and sensitive talks between governments.
To be fair, it is not uncommon for American law enforcement and intelligence agencies to seek assistance from their foreign compatriots in investigations that may touch upon events that happened overseas. Typically, though, this happens at levels of operation far below that of the President of the United States and the Attorney General. Indeed, in some cases American law enforcement agencies, including the F.B.I. and the New York City Police Department’s terrorism unit, maintain offices in prominent foreign nations specifically for the purposes of working with foreign law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and governments on matters of mutual interest such as the fight against international terrorism and other matters. Additionally, the F.B.I. in particular often assists in investigations of terror attacks and other events overseas in which Americans or American-related interests are targeted.
That isn’t really what’s happening here, though. In these cases, the President and his surrogate the Attorney General are essentially doing the same thing vis a vis the leaders of nations such as Australia that Trump did in his phone call with Ukraine’s President. They are attempting to put pressure on a foreign leader for assistance in what is nothing more than an investigation based on partisanship and conspiracy theories. In this case, the investigation that is apparently taking place inside the Justice Department is based on a long-standing conservative conspiracy theory that claims that the entire basis for the Russia investigation was an effort by, depending on who you ask, either Democrats or the Deep State (or both) to undermine the Trump campaign and, later, the Trump Presidency. There’s obviously no substance to the entire allegation, but it has been pushed by conservative media, including certain Fox News Channel hosts, and by President Trump even months after the Mueller investigation ended.
The other concern that these reports raise, of course, is the role of Attorney General William Barr is playing in this Administration. Despite representations to the contrary during his confirmation hearing, it is clear that Barr feels free to act not as the chief law enforcement officer of the nation outside of the President himself, but as the lawyer for the President of the United States and as a protector of the Administration. This isn’t unlike the role that John Mitchell took on during the Watergate era, although there is as yet no evidence that Barr has actually done anything illegal. Nonetheless, by letting the Justice Department to be turned into an institution to investigate the President’s political rivals and chase down baseless conspiracy theories is most assuredly a violation of the oath Barr took when he took office.