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Report: Trump Pressured Australia’s Prime Minister To Discredit Mueller Probe

 

In yet another instance of Trump requesting foreign leaders interfere with American domestic policy, the New York Times reported Monday that Trump asked Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to help Attorney General William Barr gather information with the goal of discrediting special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.

The Times said the call, which took place “in recent weeks,” was initiated by Trump for the explicit purpose of asking Morrison to help the Justice Department’s review of the Russia investigation. Further, the Times reports that Barr himself asked Trump to make the call.

After the Times broke the story about Trump’s overtures to Australia, the Washington Post reported that Barr reached out to members of British intelligence as well as officials in Italy. According to ABC News, Barr asked Trump to introduce Barr to leaders in both Australia and Italy, as well as possible other countries. The point of the outreach, according to the Post, was part of the conservative agenda to “investigate the investigators” seeking to discredit Mueller and his team.

The request for foreign interference comes on the heels of a whistleblower report alleging Trump requested Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky work with Barr and Rudy Giuliani — Trump’s personal attorney — to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden. The allegation has been largely corroborated, in part by a White House memo showing Trump did, indeed, request “a favor” from Zelensky which would help Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign. It is illegal to solicit campaign interference from a foreign national.

According to the whistleblower, Trump’s call with Zelensky was placed in a highly classified electronic storage location usually reserved for classified intelligence matters. According to the Times, Trump’s call with the Australian prime minister was handled in a similar manner, which is a break from how such calls are usually handled.

Even though Mueller is a decorated war hero who was named as special counsel by Trump’s own Justice Department appointees, Trump has nonetheless relentlessly attacked Mueller as a partisan who led a “witch hunt” against Trump. Through the course of Mueller’s investigation, several high-ranking campaign officials who worked for Trump in 2016 pleaded guilty and/or were convicted on a variety of federal offenses. Among those who are either in prison or awaiting a sentence include: Trump campaign manager, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, Trump’s personal attorney, Trump’s first national security adviser, and Trump’s foreign policy adviser.

In his report, Mueller outlined instances where Trump campaign officials welcomed election interference initiated by Russian operatives. Further, the report outlined numerous instances of Trump obstructing justice.

During the investigation and since the report’s release, Trump has tried to discredit Mueller, his team, and the final report. In May, Barr launched an investigation into the Mueller investigation, hoping to further Trump’s goal of discrediting the report.

Now, it appears that Trump wanted to outsource some of that investigation to Australia. The request for Australia to help likely comes in part because Australian officials were some of the first to notify the FBI of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to the Times. The notification came after Trump aide George Papadopoulos told an Australian official about potential dirt Russia had on Hillary Clinton, who was running against Trump.

If the reports are accurate, there is now evidence Trump solicited political assistance from at least two foreign leaders.

Published with permission of The American Independent.

Danziger: Guanxi In Oz

Jeff Danziger’s award-winning drawings are published by more than 600 newspapers and websites. He has been a cartoonist for theRutland Herald, the New York Daily News and the Christian Science Monitor; his work has appeared in newspapers from theWall Street Journal to Le Monde and Izvestia. Represented by the Washington Post Writers Group, he is a recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army as a linguist and intelligence officer in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. Danziger has published ten books of cartoons and a novel about the Vietnam War. He was born in New York City, and now lives in Manhattan and Vermont. A video of the artist at work can be viewed here.

Combative Trump: ‘How Does The Press Get This Information?’

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The first gripe came three minutes into President Donald Trump’s first solo press conference on Thursday, when he accused reporters of ignoring a poll showing him with a 55 percent approval rating – a figure at odds with most other surveys.

From there, the president’s criticism of the media went from barbed to personal in a cutting assessment of what he viewed as unfair coverage of his first few weeks in office – a period that has seen a succession of crises.

On a day when he ceded a loss over a signature policy in a federal appeals court, had to replace his labor secretary pick and faced questions over the resignation of his national security adviser, Trump chose to make the media a central focus of an unusually long and combative presidential news conference.

When asked by journalists of contacts between his presidential campaign and Russian operatives, he deflected the questions and put the focus instead on what he described as “illegal” government leaks and “dishonest” media coverage.

“The press is out of control,” he said. “The level of dishonesty is out of control,”

After weeks of disclosures in newspapers over turmoil in his administration, he told one reporter to “sit down” for a rambling question.

“Tomorrow, they will say: ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press,'” Trump said. “I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time

doing it.”

Trump’s message in the 77-minute session appeared aimed at the same voters who elected him president last November, a large number of whom feel Washington has left them behind and who like his image as an outsider trying to shake up the establishment.

He sought to cast problems buffeting the White House as “the mess” he inherited from former Democratic President Barack Obama, and boasted about the “fine-tuned administration” he is running.

In one unusual exchange near the end of the news conference, Trump called on a questioner, asking if he was “a friendly reporter.”

When the journalist asked about recent threats to 48 Jewish centers across the country and signs of rising anti-Semitism, Trump appeared to take the question personally, replying: “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”

He added he was also the “least racist person,” told the reporter to be “quiet,” accused him of lying, and then dismissed the question as “insulting.”

Most opinion polls show Trump struggling with low approval numbers less than a month into his presidency. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted February 10 to 14 gave Trump a 46 percent approval rating.

While many presidencies have started off on rocky ground, Trump’s administration has been particularly marked by controversies, fights with the media, and a legal battle over an executive order to ban people temporarily from seven Muslim-majority countries.

“I turn on the TV and open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos, chaos. And yet, it is the exact opposite,” Trump said.

Trump waved away questions about a New York Times report that members of his campaign team had frequent contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials last year.

His main complaint was that the news media had uncovered leaks about intercepted communications between Michael Flynn, ousted this week as national security adviser and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kisylak, and leaks about his own conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia.

“The first thing I thought of, how does the press get this information?” he asked.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Jason Szep and Peter Cooney)

IMAGE: President Donald Trump holds a news conference at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 16, 2017.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

6 Countries Trump Has Already Insulted And Provoked

Two weeks into Donald Trump’s belligerent presidency, one must ask: Where will this administration’s launch its first serious international conflict?

The White House’s announcement Friday of narrow economic sanctions against Iran, in response to its dumb test firing of a missile, came after Trump made it sound like Iran had done something outsized and horrific. It hadn’t. Still, the president tweeted hours before announcing the sanctions, “Iran is playing with fire” and, “They don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”

Diplomats and foreign policy experts see an emerging pattern of needless spats, provocations and threats coming from Trump, and they’ve already labeled it. “I think we are just facing a normal Trump tantrum,” Graham Richardson, a senior cabinet minister in a previous Australian government, told Sky News, in response to Trump’s telephone tirade with the prime minister of one of the U.S.’ most loyal allies. Apparently, Trump hit the roof when he learned that the Obama administration had promised to take 1,250 war refugees stranded offshore in Australia—if they passed U.S. federal immigration review.

But Australia’s prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, just as Mexico’s president did days earlier, covered for Trump,  saying, no, the U.S. president didn’t hang up on him. Mexico’s presidential spokesman said no, Trump didn’t threaten a military invasion—rather he offered troops to combat crime. This is what seasoned diplomats do, when bulls stampede in the china shop.

“None of this is normal,” Dan Nexon, a professor at Georgetown University who studies American global strategy, told Vox. “It’s not just that the president is apparently acting like a petulant bully with these people. It’s also that it’s for no obvious policy purpose.”

Actually, Trump is doing what he pledged to do during his campaign—shake up all the old systems by injecting chaos and instability.

“We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” he said last summer in his major foreign policy address at the Center for the National Interest. Trump’s complaints about foreign policy—then and now—are the same. The U.S. is overextended with allies taking advantage of us, not paying a fair share, think we’re unreliable, and rivals do not respect us, Trump said. “We’re getting out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.”

Here’s a list of six countries and major international institutions that Trump and his team have threatened—injecting anything but stability into international affairs. Certainly this behavior is silly, unnecessary, and stupid. The question is, will these provocations and others to likely follow lead to serious new international conflict.

1. Iran. The Iranian decision to test-fire a ballistic missile this week was an example of the dumb provoking the dumb. Trump took the bait and tweeted early Friday, “Iran is playing with fire.” That reply came two days after his administration put Iran “on notice” about its missile tests and its support of terrorism. While Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted Friday that his country was unmoved by U.S. threats and would never initiate a war, Trump’s martial hardliner, National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn, preposterously claimed that the Islamic Republic was still a major threat to the United States. “Iran’s senior leadership continues to threaten the United Stated and its allies,” his statement released by the White House said. “The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.”

2. North Korea. Here, too, the Trump administration is saber rattling with an isolated nuclear-armed regime that likes to flash its teeth, and drawing eye-for-an-eye lines in the sand. The new Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, on his first trip abroad since taking over the Pentagon, visited South Korea and Japan, and as with Iran, said that North Korea was a bad actor continuing to “engage in threatening rhetoric and behavior.” Speaking to the press before meeting South Korea’s defense minister, he said, “Any attack on the United States or our allies will be defeated and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming.”

3. China. Here, Trump’s administration isn’t just making eye-for-an-eye threats, they are throwing the first punch. During his confirmation hearings for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson called for a more confrontational stance on China’s expansion of military bases off their coast in the South China Sea. “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” he said. That came after the president-elect spoke to Taiwan’s president, provoking China, and scuttled the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which lessens the clout the U.S. has in the region. “By preemptively eliminating tools like economic statecraft from its foreign-policy toolbox, the Trump administration will be leaving itself with only hard power to counteract China’s ambitions,” ForeignPolicy.com wrote. “That would probably mean an attempted military blockade against the Chinese navy in the South China Sea.”

4. Mexico. Trump’s attacks against Mexico and its people are too numerous to recount, starting with his early campaign slurs smearing Mexicans and continuing with recent boasts about forcing the country to pay for a new border wall, which it has consistently dismissed. But last week, this needlessly fraught relationship took a darker turn when Trump threatened Mexican president Peña Nieto with sending U.S. troops over the border to fight crime, according to leaked transcripts of the phone call. “Trump threatened to send U.S. troops into Mexico to stop ‘bad hombres down there’” said the Los Angeles Times. Immediately afterward, the White House and the Mexican president’s office walked that back, saying no such threat was made—the predictable diplomatic and public relations damage control response. On the other hand, the Mexican president canceled his January 30 meeting with Trump, after Trump kept saying the U.S. would build a wall and Mexico would pay for it.

5. Australia. Trump’s executive order ending U.S. commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership has left U.S. allies in the region, especially Japan and Australia, reeling as they saw it as a withdrawal of U.S. power from the region. As he did in his conversation with Mexico’s president, Trump went ballistic in a phone call last weekend with Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, apparently because he did not know about Obama’s pledge to resettle 1,250 refugees. Trump called it “the worst deal ever,” according to news reports. Later, he tweeted angrily about it, prompting Turnbull to downplay the incident and a former cabinet member there to label it “a normal Trump tantrum.” Obviously, the U.S. is not going to incite a dispute with Australia, a key military and intelligence ally, especially when it’s picking fights with nearby China. But yet another kneejerk and dumb reaction is hardly going to lower the temperature in the region.

6. Germany. This is another example of Trump’s team needlessly provoking a key ally. Trump, of course, supported Great Britain’s exit from the European Union, which does not help that continent achieve more economic and social stability. But his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, went after Germany and accused it of being a currency manipulator, by gaming the euro’s value to “exploit” the U.S. dollar. This is the diplomatic equivalent of an ambush. Allies don’t expect their longtime partners to wage these fights in public and this has a cost that’s going to hurt the U.S., because, as in the case in the Pacific, the perception is this American administration is withdrawing and cannot be trusted.

Words Have Meaning and Actions Have Consequences.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the world is watching Trump, and apart from Russia—where Trump is portrayed in the press as their new best friend—is not impressed.

On Tuesday this week, the European Council president Donald Tusk sent a letter to the heads of European Union member states with deep misgivings about Trump. Tusk cited Trump questioning NATO’s value, applauding Britain’s exit from the EU, saying other countries might want to leave to reclaim “their own identity,” and that the EU was a “vehicle for Germany” to assert its power.

Trump has also lashed out at the United Nations, threatening to cut U.S. funding there and for other global organizations by 40 percent. However imperfect the U.N. may be, shrinking it would undermine its peacekeeping and international cooperation efforts. Trump’s advisers have also said they want to walk away from international climate change treaties, which will lead to more—not less—global instability.

Two weeks into his administration, Trump is the proverbial bull in the diplomatic china shop. But his provocations and precedents are serious and are likely to lead to a conflict somewhere that cooler heads would avoid. Writing for Foreign Policy, Stephen Martin Walt, an American professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who describes himself as a realist, said Trump has already blown it, is offending people in every direction, and he doesn’t get it.

“They started to pick several fights with China while undercutting the U.S. position in Asia,” he wrote. “He badgered Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in an acrimonious phone call—and here we are talking about the leader of the country that has fought at America’s side in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—and he bragged (again) about his electoral win. They picked another pointless fight with Mexico, mostly because Trump can’t admit what is obvious to all: If that stupid wall ever gets built, Americans will have to pay for it. The White House announced an unlawful ban on Muslim immigrants, and rolled the new policy out as ineptly as possible. I mean, seriously: They shut the door on hundreds of extensively vetted refugees on Holocaust Remembrance Day (thereby invoking memories of the country’s callous response to Nazi persecution in the 1930s), and then they doubled-down by deliberately excluding any mention of Jews from the official statement on the day itself.”

The question is not if, but when and where will Trump’s first serious conflict strike?

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights.

IMAGE: President Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, at the Homeland Security headquarters.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst