Strange things happen when Donald Trump gets on a call with an Australian prime minister.
As the New York Times reported on Monday, Trump called up his buddy Scott Morrison last month to ask for help with his Justice Department’s partisan attempt to discredit the Mueller inquiry—“another instance of the president using American diplomacy for potential personal gain,” as the Times put it. We don’t yet know what was requested of Australia other than cooperation with the investigation into its own role in Russiagate—presumably, looking into the actions of Alexander Downer, Australia’s former ambassador to the United Kingdom whose diplomatic reporting of George Papadopoulos’ barside boasts sparked the FBI inquiry and earned him the epithet “Clinton errand boy.” The White House has dismissed claims the request was inappropriate, but, as with the impeachment inquiry–prompting call between Trump and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, there is clear acknowledgment of impropriety: access to the Trump-Morrison transcript was limited to a small group of aides, in an unusual restriction similar to that undertaken for the Zelensky call.
But while the U.S. media is focused on the fact that Trump made such a request, many Australians are more concerned with the fact that Morrison so willingly said yes to it. As Australians woke to the breaking news on Tuesday, the prime minister’s office confirmed the call had taken place and that Morrison had told the president Australia was happy to help.
“The Australian Government has always been ready to assist and cooperate with efforts that help shed further light on the matters under investigation,” a spokesman said. “The PM confirmed this readiness once again in conversation with the President.” Morrison has since dismissed the call as “uncontroversial,” as if this was an obvious response to a standard request. As it turns out, Australian Ambassador to the U.S. and Trump golf buddy Joe Hockey had already offered up Australia’s full compliance in an unprompted letter back in May, just days after Trump said he wanted the Justice Department probe to look into Australia. “The Australian government will use its best endeavours to support your efforts in this matter,” Hockey wrote to Barr.
Morrison is now under major scrutiny and is being urged to provide more information about what exactly was promised during the call, which took place just weeks before he left on a highly flattering state visit to Washington. Opposition leader Anthony Albanese is demanding “straight answers” from the prime minister, a man skilled at dismissing uncomfortable questions as irrelevant “Canberra bubble” gossip (his own version of “the swamp”). Morrison, like Trump, wants people to believe he hasn’t done anything improper here, telling Sky News on Wednesday that it would have been “quite extraordinary” not to cooperate, with Australia having “nothing to hide.” A number of pundits agree. As Simon Jackman, chief executive officer of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, wrote in the Australian, the request was “procedurally routine,” though “politically extraordinary,” because “Australian and US governments co-operate on law enforcement matters all the time.”
Others say Morrison sold out by agreeing to participate in what is clearly a sham probe. In offering to look into Australia’s role in the FBI investigation, Morrison humored the far-fetched and insulting theory that Australia was somehow involved in a conspiracy to get Hillary Clinton elected, throwing Downer, a respected member of his own party, under the MAGA bus in the process. It’s generally agreed, even by Morrison, that Downer acted entirely appropriately and in the interests of both nations in reporting what Papadopoulos told him—so why didn’t Morrison tell Trump that? The prime minister has instead dragged Australia into an impeachment scandal that grows messier by the day and, as columnist Michael Bradley notes in Crikey, may have ended up “actively (if naively) participating in foreign interference in the US political system,” compromising Australia’s impartiality and perhaps its “soul.”
Whether or not he could have feasibly refused Trump even if he’d wanted to, Morrison’s eager consent reflects something uncomfortably subservient at the heart of the two nations’ relationship—and the blossoming Trump-Morrison bromance in particular.
While news of the call lands amid heightened impeachment fever in the U.S., in Australia it comes amid heightened scrutiny of the Australia-U.S. relationship, with Morrison having just returned from a U.S. tour that involved a rare state dinner (only Australia’s second since 1989) and plenty of embarrassing PDA. Not only did Trump honor Morrison with a White House dinner, he repeatedly showered him with praise, referring to him as a “man of titanium” and musing at a factory opening/quasi–campaign rally that Morrison’s surprise election victory was much like his own.
Both leaders snubbed the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York, opting to attend the factory opening together instead, much to 70 percent of Australians’ annoyance. While Australia generally tries to balance its competing relationships with China and the U.S., the White House visit coincided with a more outwardly White House–aligned trade push from Morrison, who days after the dinner echoed Trump in calling for China to stop being treated as a “developing nation,” much to China’s annoyance. Morrison’s eagerness to please on the call merely reflects a larger trend in this tightening relationship in which, it would appear, Trump flatters and Morrison submits.
It’s a type of behavior that concerns Australians, a reminder of the subservience that colors our alliance with our “biggest and greatest” ally, with Australian leaders (usually on the right) often pandering to U.S. presidents. While Trump was quick to praise Morrison during their tour, it’s clear Australia remains the weaker partner in the relationship, still overly keen on currying favor and respect. It’s this insecurity that has seen Australia follow the U.S. into conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq. (The close relationship between John Howard and George W. Bush was a precursor to what we’re seeing now.) Australia has long relied on the U.S. for security guarantees, and it’s not a relationship Australia can afford to mess up. But with the importance of its relationship with China growing, Australia can no longer afford to blatantly take sides. But while Australia has attempted to more evenly balance its interests between China and the U.S. in recent years, Morrison appears to be leaping back into America’s arms.
Is Morrison just bending over backward for Trump in exchange for praise and state dinners? Was the state visit invite a (successful) play to Morrison’s ego, an attempt to butter him up in a way that made a request hard to turn down? The opposition Labor Party has suggested so, with former leader Bill Shorten demanding Morrison release a transcript of the latest call to “clean up the perception that perhaps the special reception was returned for special favours done.” As some have pointed out, the Australia call was different from the Ukraine call in that it wasn’t a quid pro quo request; unlike its Ukrainian counterpart, the call didn’t come with the implicit threat of withholding $400 million worth of aid, and Morrison has insisted there was no pressure involved. But though there was no stick, there may have been a White House dinner carrot.
There’s evidence to suggest Morrison truly intends to go through with helping the U.S. Justice Department with an “investigation” that even he knows is publicly funded, politically motivated conspiracymongering and with the acknowledgment that a member of his own conservative party—not to mention Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister—could be an “errand boy.” Despite Australia’s revulsion with the revelations, Morrison has publicly refused to rule out providing the U.S. with classified diplomatic cables sent by Downer following his Papadopoulos meeting (while allowing it would be a highly “unusual” thing to do) or making Downer available for questioning. It appears that we actually do have an “errand boy” on our hands—a Trump errand boy.
Australians were already scratching their heads over what Trump wanted from Morrison, with the lavish state dinner, not to mention the Trumpian praise, raising serious questions. Why Morrison? Why now? And how close is too close when it comes to Donald Trump?
Perhaps now we have the answers to both.