According to the media's heavy breathing on Twitter last evening, the latest "bombshell" development in the Trump impeachment saga is the revelation that the president asked the Australian government to assist the probe ordered by Attorney General Bill Barr into the origins of the 2016 US counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign. That investigation, which was eventually inherited and completed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, concluded that no one in the Trump campaign (and no Americans in general) had colluded with the Russian government to interfere in the last presidential election. Barr, quite appropriately, tapped a respected US Attorney named John Durham, to establish a full accounting of how that process originated and was carried out. The New York Times' ostensibly big scoop Monday evening reported that Trump encouraged the Australians -- whose government officials played at least some role in kickstarting the Russia investigation -- to cooperate with Barr and Durham:
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...And like the call with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, the discussion with Mr. Morrison shows the president using high-level diplomacy to advance his personal political interests.
The problem with the Ukraine call is that Trump at least erected an implied or potential quid pro quo, with half of the arrangement being a foreign investigation of his domestic political rival, and the other half being US military aid. The ask itself was inappropriate and a misuse of power; evidence linking the two pieces (we have possibly suspicious but mitigated timing, but not much more, at this point) would be impeachable. But with Australia, as others have noted, the president asked a trusted ally to help with a fully legitimate and ongoing American investigation into a serious circumstance, in which the allied government played a role. Yes, the outcome of that investigation could advance the president's "personal political interests," but it's also unquestionably in the national interest, in a way that transcends prosaic partisan advantage. More from the Times:
Justice Department officials have said that it would be neither illegal nor untoward for Mr. Trump to ask world leaders to cooperate with Mr. Barr. And it is within Mr. Barr’s powers to speak with foreign law enforcement officials about what his prosecutor needs from them.
There's nothing here. The president said he wanted Australian help on this front in public several months ago, and the Australian government agreed. No Rudy weirdness, no conspiracy theories, no hint of a quid pro quo. I understand that some critics are alarmed by Barr's intensive and hands-on efforts to see that the Durham inquiry is comprehensive, but those machinations are a political Rorschach test. Anti-Trump partisans despise Barr because of the (totally appropriate) role he played in the dissemination of the Mueller report, so they think he's unduly inserting himself in the process (he is not recused) in order to please his boss. Trump defenders will likely argue, persuasively in my view, that given the scope and stakes of Durham's work, and the possible wrongdoing among American intelligence and law enforcement officials, Barr is right to do what he can to ensure that Durham's work is not frustrated or obstructed.
The country needs solid answers on that whole front, or we'll be arguing about these issues 'til kingdom come. Attempts to tar Barr and complain about the prioritization of the Durham probe may also come off to many observers as political positioning from people who may fear what could be brought to light. As for liberals and media members trying to pretend that Ukraine and Australia are somehow equivalent, or at least data points in a similar pattern, that line ain't gonna sell:
Correct. This charge risks Avenattizing the Ukraine thing. https://t.co/n0exxHljqp— Eli Lake (@EliLake) October 1, 2019
Lake's comment refers to the insane and discredited Julie Swetnick 'serial gang rape' charge against Brett Kavanaugh, in which that circus truly jumped the shark, along with supposedly the serious Senate Democrats who bought into it (incidentally, the other claims against Kavanaugh ranged from not credible to totally unsubstantiated). By throwing far less important or damning chum in the water on this new controversy, the president's opponents risk muddying the water, making it easier for the White House to argue that this is all just a wild feeding frenzy, from the people who were Russia obsessives until something else came along. I'll leave you with some relevant odds and ends: (1) New clarity on the allegedly 'changed' whistleblower rules we flagged yesterday, (2) ridiculous fantasizing from Obama acolytes about removing Trump and Pence from office, thus making Nancy Pelosi president, (3) a reminder that the DOJ Inspector General report on potential FISA abuses in the Russia investigation will be dropping any day, which could scramble our already-heated discussion on impeachment and improper applications of power, and (4) a few thoughts on House Democrats' timing dilemma: