It’s hard not to notice that these natsec news scoops are coming regularly now with John Bolton out of the White House, having been unceremoniously removed as NSA. Obviously he’s not responsible for every revelation; the whistleblower complaint was filed before he lost his job.
But some mighty high-level leaks are happening and Bolton is known for exacting revenge on his political enemies. The WSJ reported this afternoon that Mike Pompeo was on Trump’s call to Ukraine’s president on July 25, making him a figure of great interest to House Democrats. Now here comes the Times with a new scoop about another “recent” high-level conversation, this time between Trump and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison. And the source or sources in this case somehow knew that the transcript of the call with Morrison was tightly held, with only a few aides able to access it.
There’s no proof that Bolton’s involved. It’s just an … interesting coincidence, is all.
Reading the Times story, I wonder if the Senate GOP’s strategy on impeachment will be to simply play for time. Investigation-worthy stuff keeps dribbling out and meanwhile Trump himself keeps saying things that risk making his problems worse, like admitting to the media this afternoon that he’s trying to find out who the whistleblower is. Republican senators don’t want to have to vote on, or even comment on, any of this. If Pelosi drags her feet a bit on impeachment, expect McConnell and others to make the argument that we’re now so close to the election that it’d be unfair to deprive voters of the opportunity to issue a verdict on all this in November. Which, of course, is exactly why Pelosi wants to have impeachment done quickly. The sooner the ball is in the Senate’s court, the harder it is for McConnell to claim it’s too late to vote.
The White House restricted access to the call’s transcript to a small group of the president’s aides, one of the officials said, an unusual decision that is similar to the handling of a July call with the Ukrainian president that is at the heart of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump. Like that call, the discussion with Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia shows the extent to which Mr. Trump sees the attorney general as a critical partner in his goal to show that the Mueller investigation had corrupt and partisan origins, and the extent that Mr. Trump sees the Justice Department inquiry as a potential way to gain leverage over America’s closest allies…
President Trump initiated the discussion in recent weeks with Mr. Morrison explicitly for the purpose of requesting Australia’s help in the Justice Department review of the Russia investigation, according to the two people with knowledge of the discussion. Mr. Barr requested that Mr. Trump speak to Mr. Morrison, one of the people said. It came only weeks after Mr. Trump seemed to make military aid to Ukraine contingent on Mr. Zelensky doing him the “favor” of helping Mr. Barr with his work…
In making the request, Mr. Trump was in effect asking the Australian government to investigate itself. The F.B.I.’s counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election began after Australian officials told the bureau that the Russian government had made overtures to the Trump campaign about releasing political damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
NBC confirmed that Trump spoke recently to Morrison about the Durham probe of Russiagate but “an administration official described the call as a routine call between two heads of state ahead of state seeking the assistance of another country’s law enforcement agency.” WaPo, meanwhile, is out with its own story confirming that Barr has taken an oddly hands-on approach to the Durham investigation, in some cases flying to countries like Italy to personally solicit assistance with it. Why he would do that knowing how Democrats will exploit his involvement to try to discredit the findings is unclear. The whole point of appointing a respected prosecutor like John Durham to find out how the Russiagate probe began was to try to keep political fingerprints off of it. And now here’s Barr, a figure whom Democrats loathe and have lambasted for seeming way too sympathetic to Trump’s narrative of Russiagate, inserting himself into the process.
But anyway. What’s tricky about the Times’s report of the Morrison call is that it’s easy to imagine Trump having an improper purpose but hard to see how he did anything improper. It’s natural to believe that the president was concerned first and foremost with himself and his reelection campaign in placing the call. The essence of his approach to life is to look out for number one, always and everywhere; that’s also what makes it so easy to believe that his pressure on Ukraine to open a Biden investigation was motivated by wanting to damage a political opponent, not some abstract concern with corruption by former U.S. officials. But the Ukraine call had shady business surrounding it — the sustained involvement of Trump’s private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who was unaccountable to any federal agency, and of course the context of the hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid that Trump mysteriously blocked and only eventually released after pressure from Congress. There’s none of that here. The Durham probe is a legitimate DOJ inquiry and it’s DOJ officials who are involved in it. There’s no hint of Australia being threatened with anything if they refused to assist Trump either. There’s nothing objectively shady about the president asking a foreign head of state to help out the Justice Department.
The only clue that the White House itself viewed the call as sketchy is the bit about “restricted access” to the transcript. Although Trump would doubtless say that this Times story proves the virtue of restricting that access in the first place: Since the media’s bound to fly off the handle about even appropriate requests, it’s better to just try to keep them secret.
In other impeachment news this afternoon, Adam Schiff has formally subpoenaed Ukraine documents from Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani told ABC yesterday that he won’t cooperate with Schiff but Rudy says a lot of things that he ends up contradicting later. I’m already gaming out the inevitable sequence of events to come: Rudy refuses to comply with the subpoena, claiming attorney/client privilege; Democrats remind him that he’s already said he wasn’t serving Trump as an attorney in conducting his Ukraine business; Rudy continues to refuse; Democrats hold him in contempt; Trump pardons Giuliani; and then we have a fun Supreme Court fight over whether the constitutional limitation on the president’s pardon power (“in cases of impeachment”) means he can’t pardon *anyone* connected to an impeachment investigation, like Rudy, or whether it merely means that he can’t pardon *himself.*
Here’s Trump digging himself deeper in a hole today.