Australia’s letter responding to Trump's Russia request
The Australian government is under intense scrutiny today over its response to Donald Trump's request for help discrediting special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference.
This morning The New York Times dropped a bombshell report revealing Mr Trump called Prime Minister Scott Morrison several weeks ago, before Mr Morrison's state visit to the United States, and asked him to help US Attorney-General William Barr show the Mueller investigation had "corrupt and partisan" origins.
An Australian government spokesman confirmed the call took place.
"The Australian government has always been ready to assist and co-operate with efforts to help shed further light on the matters under investigation. The PM confirmed his readiness once again in conversation with the President," the spokesman said.
The phone call was foreshadowed in May when Mr Trump declassified "potentially millions of pages" of intelligence documents related to the Mueller investigation and tasked Mr Barr's department with analysing them, encouraging him to "look at" Australia.
"What I've done is I've declassified everything," the President told reporters at the time.
"He can look, and I hope he looks at the UK, 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."
The same week, Australia's ambassador to the United States, Joe Hockey, wrote to Mr Barr and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, indicating the Government would help.
"The Australian government will use its best endeavours to support your efforts in this matter. While Australia's former high commissioner to the UK, Alexander Downer, is no longer employed by the Government, we stand ready to provide you with all relevant information to support your inquiries," Mr Hockey said.
That letter was only revealed today.
So, why is Australia involved in this? And why on earth are we talking about Alexander Downer?
Back in May of 2016, Mr Downer - the former Australian foreign minister and Liberal Party leader - met a man named George Papadopoulos at a bar in London.
Mr Downer was serving as the Australian high commissioner to the UK. Mr Papadopoulos was a foreign policy adviser on Mr Trump's presidential campaign.
Mr Papadopoulos told Mr Downer he was confident Mr Trump would win the election and revealed Russia might release information damaging to his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The conversation occurred before Wikileaks started to release hacked emails and well before America's intelligence agencies concluded Russia was behind them.
Mr Downer sent a diplomatic cable to Canberra relaying what he had learned. The information was then passed on to authorities in the United States, where it helped spark the FBI's investigation into Russian election interference.
Mr Papadopoulos was eventually jailed for lying to the FBI.
Mr Papadopoulos has since accused Mr Downer of being an "FBI spy". In response to this morning's New York Times report, he labelled the former foreign minister a "wannabe spy" and a "Clinton errand boy" - a somewhat bizarre claim, given Mr Downer hails from the conservative side of politics.
So, that was the context for Mr Trump's request. He wanted Australia to help investigate Mr Downer's role in the genesis of the Mueller investigation, which he was seeking to discredit.
The Mueller investigation, which was distinct from the FBI's previous Russia investigation, actually started after Mr Trump decided to fire FBI director James Comey.
For the sake of clarity, here is how things unfolded:
• Mr Papadopoulos told Mr Downer Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton;
• Mr Downer told Canberra what he had learned in a diplomatic cable;
• Australia told US authorities, who launched an investigation into potential interference in the US election by Russia;
• As part of that investigation, Mr Trump's first White House national security adviser Michael Flynn lied to the FBI about his contacts with Russia's US ambassador;
• Mr Trump fired FBI director James Comey after unsuccessfully pressuring him to "go easy" on General Flynn;
• Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein, a Republican, appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian election interference, as well as potential collusion between Russia and members of Mr Trump's campaign, and potential obstruction of justice by the President.
Mr Mueller concluded his investigation earlier this year. His report did not uncover proof of collusion between Mr Trump and Russia and declined to make an assessment on obstruction of justice, citing Justice Department policy that a sitting president could not be indicted.
The investigation did lead to dozens of indictments, however, including members of Mr Trump's election campaign - Mr Papadopoulos, General Flynn, campaign manager Paul Manafort, his deputy Rick Gates and Mr Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen.
Despite being in the clear, so to speak, Mr Trump is still trying to discredit the investigation and has drawn foreign countries into his efforts.
Last week it emerged he had pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate his nation's role. Mr Trump appears to be under the impression that CrowdStrike, the company hired by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to look into the hack, is Ukrainian when it is, in fact, based in California.
He also believes a DNC server could be in Ukraine. There is no evidence that any such server even exists.
Now we know the US President has pressured Australia to help investigate one of its own diplomats, Mr Downer.
Mr Morrison's assertion he is "ready to assist" the investigation and Mr Hockey's letter have left the Government with questions to answer.
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. Great reporting, NYTs! Mifsud is next.— George Papadopoulos (@GeorgePapa19) September 30, 2019
Pay back time!— George Papadopoulos (@GeorgePapa19) September 30, 2019