Morrison Denies Trump Applied 'Pressure' To Help Russia Probe
Scott Morrison has claimed it would have been "extraordinary" to not help Donald Trump with his investigation, as the PM downplays controversy over a recent phone call.
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister gave his first interview since it was reported earlier this week that U.S. President Trump had asked for Australia's assistance in a Justice Department review of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The request is thought to have involved, in part, the involvement of former Liberal MP Alexander Downer. The then-Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom met with Trump campaign adviser George Papadopolous in London in May 2016, where he was reportedly told Russia had damaging information on Trump's political opponent Hillary Clinton.
U.S. ambassador and another former Liberal MP, Joe Hockey, told U.S. attorney-general William Barr that Australia would "use its best endeavours to support your efforts" in investigating Russian links to the 2016 election. The Prime Minister's office on Tuesday confirmed that Trump had followed up on this offer in a phone call.
"The Australian Government has always been ready to assist and cooperate with efforts that help shed further light on the matters under investigation. The PM confirmed this readiness once again in conversation with the President," the PMO said.
Speaking to David Speers of Sky News on Wednesday, Morrison sought to downplay the significance of, and controversy around, the phone call by claiming it was part of the routine cooperation between the U.S. and Australia.
The PM said the call was "uneventful".
"It would have been more surprising had we chosen not to cooperate," Morrison claimed, saying to deny the request would have been "extraordinary".
"Our officials will engage with the U.S. attorney and respond as they consider appropriate."
Morrison claimed Trump's call was simply following up earlier offers to cooperate with the investigation, seeking to establish a "point of contact" between the two governments on the matter.
"The US is our most significant ally and we are used to sharing a lot of information," Morrison said.
"Australia would never do anything contrary to our national interest but it would have been, I think, frankly more surprising had we chosen not to cooperate."
While the PM said Australia would assist with the U.S. probe, he said it would be "very unusual" for Australia to provide diplomatic cables or other official government communications, of the type which a diplomat like Downer may have produced after significant meetings.
However, when asked if Downer may be made available for interview by U.S. authorities, Morrison answered Australia "would cooperate with those sort of requests".
Morrison also said he was not aware of any recording of Downer's meeting. As the interview went to air on Sky, Papadopolous himself was actually tweeting in response to the PM's answers, and insinuated that a "transcript" of the Downer meeting existed.
The reporting of the Trump phone call comes in the wake of a separate politically damaging call between the President and the leader Ukraine. In that call, Trump asked the country's president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden's dealings in Ukraine, and reportedly linked the request to American aid money.
That call is now the centre of an inquiry into a possible impeachment of Trump.
Speers asked whether Trump had made a similar request of Morrison, and also about questions from Labor on whether the PM's recent visit to the United States was linked to Australia's cooperation with the Russia investigation.
"Prime Minister Morrison got a very warm, indeed special reception from President Trump. Mr Morrison needs to clean up the perception that perhaps the special reception was returned for special favours done," Labor minister Bill Shorten said this week.
"The Australian people value and cherish the American alliance, but no Australian wants to see our Prime Minister having the perception of being a lapdog to a particular US president or American domestic political agenda."
Morrison fobbed off this claim, alleging it was linked to "unresolved bitterness" on the part of Shorten -- the former Labor leader, whom Morrison defeated in the May election.