Trump Pressuring Other Foreign Leaders For Information About Rivals

It's not just Ukraine.

“President Donald J. Trump in the Oval Office” by The White House

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.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Impeachment, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. mattbernius says:

    I know I’m going to get downvoted for this, but I feel like this one is a bit of a nothing-burger from a malfeasance perspective and it’s just going to cloud the larger Ukraine issue if not contextualized correctly.

    To your point Doug, this is pressuring people to participate in an existing and sanctioned DoJ investigation (being run by John Durham). That’s fundamentally different than the Biden request.

    Without a doubt, Barr’s hands on role in this breaks norms. Further that this is largely based on conspiracy stuff is scary.

    But it isn’t illegal or as egregious as the Ukraine request. Unless there is something that hasn’t been discovered about this, focusing on this just muddies the waters and risks undercutting the overall argument.

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  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    @mattbernius:

    I feel like this one is a bit of a nothing-burger

    Barr personally asked foreign officials to aid inquiry into CIA, FBI activities in 2016

    He’s asking foreign intelligence services to help investigate US intelligence services and you “feel like this one is a bit of a nothing-burger”?

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  3. dmichael says:

    @mattbernius: Actually, I am not down-voting your comment. However, wasn’t John Durham appointed “Special Counsel” by the Attorney General and therefore is, by regulation, independent of the Department of Justice as to the investigation? Then what was Barr doing playing wingman to Durham in these meetings?

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  4. drj says:

    @mattbernius:

    You’re not wrong that this all could be legal, strictly speaking, even if extremely ethically suspect.

    But… come on.

    But it isn’t illegal or as egregious as the Ukraine request.

    We haven’t seen the call transcript. Just saying.

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  5. @mattbernius:

    Your comment is well-taken and, as I acknowledge in the post there are plenty of legitimate examples of cooperation between American and foreign law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. Typically, though, that doesn’t rise to the level of the President or Attorney General making personal contact with the leaders of foreign nations to facilitate that cooperation. This is especially true with respect to an ally like Australia.

    That being said, as I note in the post the entire basis for what we’re talking about here are debunked conspiracy theories about the origins of the Russia probe. Indeed, Lindsey Graham was on Fox News this morning commenting about the theory that the entire Russia probe was prompted by efforts by intelligence agencies in Australia, Italy, and the United Kingdom to interfere in American politics.

    This is fever-swamp nonsense, not a legitimate investigation.

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  6. mattbernius says:

    @dmichael:

    However, wasn’t John Durham appointed “Special Counsel” by the Attorney General and therefore is, by regulation, independent of the Department of Justice as to the investigation?

    I don’t believe that Durham is operating in that particular capacity. If you have evidence that this is supposed to be an investigation independent of DoJ, I’d love if you can share it.

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Like it or not, that is specifically the Durham investigation that has been going on for a number of months. Again, it’s highly unregular. But it’s not the same thing as the Ukraine investigation and while I don’t agree with it (like Doug) this isn’t malfeasance. And because of that its just going to confuse the issue if the two are conflated.

    Again, I don’t remotely support Barr’s actions (which I think taint the investigation) or the investigation itself, but this is a case where the DoJ appears to be operating within its bounds.

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  7. mattbernius says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Typically, though, that doesn’t rise to the level of the President or Attorney General making personal contact with the leaders of foreign nations to facilitate that cooperation. This is especially true with respect to an ally like Australia.

    Completely agree.

    And sadly this is the type of everyday corruption that we have sadly become accustomed to (though in this particular case, I don’t think would sink a previous administration). Which is also why I am cautioning that this should be taken as any sort of smoking gun (which was not the way Twitter and commentators were acting last night).

    Politically speaking, Ukraine is the biggest threat to Trump because it’s so simple.

    This, however, spins us into the complexity that wonks love but no one else cares about (sadly).

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  8. mattbernius says:

    Also, FWIW, John Durham is a well respected prosecutor (like Mueller) and has conducted investigations for both Democratic (Obama/Holder) and Republican administrations.

    Obviously that’s no guarantee of anything. But he’s not particularly well known for being a partisan hack.

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  9. Stormy Dragon says:

    @mattbernius:

    Benedict Arnold was well respected too. Durham is metaphorically negotiating the surrender of West Point to the British as we speak.

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  10. Blue Galangal says:

    @mattbernius: But – at risk of sounding as if I have donned tinfoil – isn’t there a reason to be suspicious of an attempt to probe our allies’ intelligence network mechanisms? I wish I could find it again, but Twitter moves fast, and I saw a discussion there that these requests could have a dual motive in that they could provide information to Putin about how these agencies gather information. I don’t know if that’s true – maybe Putin already knows all that is to be known about MI6 – but it sure sounds plausible given that everything Trump has done that is not a direct benefit to himself has been a direct benefit to Putin.

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  11. KM says:

    Your average person isn’t really going to understand the difference. All they’re going to hear is that Trump regularly makes calls to foreign governments about dirt on his rivals and that’s harder to contextualize. The GOP is going to have to explain away why Trump keeps making these kinds of calls and butting in on matters that – if true – should be law enforcement’s problem, not POTUS. At the very least, it looks like he’s poking his nose into matters personally or personally directing subordinates to do so in very questionable ways because it’s people he doesn’t like. Not a good look, especially with the Ukraine call on the table.

    It looks shady AF because it *is* shady AF even if it might be legal. It also establishes a pattern of behavior and removes that pesky hearsay nonsense. After all, it’s harder to claim hearsay when you keep doing it, isn’t it? There’s a reason several GOP members were less then thrilled to jump on “defend the call” wagon – they knew they’d be more and that’s not the hill they want to die on. Trump keeps making it worse by not shutting up, admitting to things they’re claiming are false and basically not stopping with the whole ethical issue thing.

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  12. gVOR08 says:

    As Doug points out, the real issue here is what it says about Barr, and by extension about “respectable” Republicans. Barr was supposed to be a widely respected institutionalist. He turned out to be a partisan hack, which was clear in his record to those who could see it. He may believe the RWNJ conspiracy theories, or he may just be doing it to suck up to Trump. It actually makes no difference which. Worse, he may be pressuring foreign officials, and DOJ, to invent or exaggerate evidence. That Barr was a respected member of the Republican establishment is proof again that the entire Party is rotten.

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  13. Teve says:

    @gVOR08: IIRC there were people calling Barr corrupt in the 80s / 90s.

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  14. Moosebreath says:

    @gVOR08:

    “Barr was supposed to be a widely respected institutionalist. He turned out to be a partisan hack, which was clear in his record to those who could see it.”

    Exactly. @mattbernius:’s case requires assuming Barr is operating in good faith. After his performance in the release of the Mueller report, that is not an assumption which should be made.

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  15. mattbernius says:

    @Blue Galangal:

    But – at risk of sounding as if I have donned tinfoil – isn’t there a reason to be suspicious of an attempt to probe our allies’ intelligence network mechanisms?

    May…be? I am not an intelligence specialist so I cannot comment one way other the other with any authority.

    I tend to be an occam’s razor guy — given the overall crass, stupid, ineptitude of this administration, this feel far more like a trademark Trumpian petty investigation over legitimizing his 2016 win.

    I do think this is yet another thumb in the eye of the US intelligence community, which is GREAT for morale.

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  16. mattbernius says:

    @Moosebreath:

    @mattbernius:’s case requires assuming Barr is operating in good faith.

    Not in the least. I’m not making that arguement at all.

    I’m simply stating he appears to be working within the law. Which matters from an impeachment perspective. If evidence of malfeasance emerges, I will happily and publicly recant my position.

    I’m just addressing the issue at hand.

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  17. Moosebreath says:

    @mattbernius:

    “@mattbernius:’s case requires assuming Barr is operating in good faith.

    Not in the least. I’m not making that arguement at all.”

    My mileage differs. You are taking the position that we need to treat Barr’s actions as above board until we see evidence otherwise. My response is that Barr has shown himself to not act in good faith, but rather to act in bad faith in order to protect Trump, in his “summary” of the Mueller report, as well as heading off the legally mandated release of the Ukraine whistleblower report rather than recusing himself when his own conduct was at issue. I see no reason to believe he is doing anything different here, and plenty of reason to think his purpose is nefarious.

    Given that you yourself above state that “Barr’s hands on role in this breaks norms. Further that this is largely based on conspiracy stuff is scary.” and “it’s highly unregular”, I think you are treating this issue as independent from Barr’s other bad acts when there is no reason to do so.

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  18. Jon says:

    @mattbernius:

    I’m simply stating he appears to be working within the law. Which matters from an impeachment perspective.

    As way too many people like to point out, impeachment is a political process not a legal one. Somebody can engage in malfeasance and abuse the powers of their office without necessarily breaking the law, while those same actions may well be impeachable.

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  19. mattbernius says:

    @Jon:

    As way too many people like to point out, impeachment is a political process not a legal one. Somebody can engage in malfeasance and abuse the powers of their office without necessarily breaking the law, while those same actions may well be impeachable.

    I agree with the general point. However, the fact remains, that the impeachment charges that have to date stuck the best are the ones that appear not only to abuse power but actually break the law. Hence the investigation.

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  20. Jon says:

    @mattbernius: I believe I agree with your overall point, but I do think you’re discounting the role that political charges can play in bootstrapping the legal ones, at least to the public.

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  21. mattbernius says:

    @Jon:
    You could be right and we may have reached this point. However, given the reaction to the Mueller report (which I think read as clear as day and should have been the first step in an impeachment investigation), I’m not sure that necessarily holds true.

    So I’m admittedly pretty cautious. I subscribe to the “If you are coming for any member of this Administration, you better not miss” school of thought…

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  22. Jon says:

    @mattbernius: Heh, you may give people too much credit in assuming they read the report.

    And to be clear, I think the legal and political charges work to bolster each other, rather than one taking precedence over the other. As we’ve seen, some crimes such as perjury or obstruction are (sadly) easy to dismiss as ‘process’ crimes whereas the current Ukraine kerfuffle (parts of which arguably haven’t crossed any legal lines) is much easier for some folks to wrap their head around as actionable. And the converse is true.

    Of course, Clinton was impeached specifically for perjury and obstruction so I guess something must have changed in the last two decades to make those less ‘crime-y’. Wonder what that was …

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  23. DrDaveT says:

    @Moosebreath:

    as well as heading off the legally mandated release of the Ukraine whistleblower report rather than recusing himself when his own conduct was at issue

    Why aren’t the Democrats in Congress hammering on this? Barr’s failure to recuse himself, given that he was on the freakin’ call and named in the whistleblower memo, cannot be defended. Even were he pure as the driven snow before that, once he starts to use his office to manipulate an investigation in which he’s a “person of interest” he’s filthy.

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  24. dmichael says:

    @mattbernius: I can’t find from any of the contemporaneous reports about the specific nature of his appointment other than it is a non-criminal review. I have to assume that this means he doesn’t have the power of a Special Counsel.

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