Documents reveal Australia’s efforts to stay neutral as Donald Trump claims election fraud | american politics

A longtime US foreign policy official is candid when asked if Australia should be worried about risks to US democracy.

“I can’t, with a straight face, say there’s nothing to worry about,” says Richard Fontaine, director of the Center for a New American Security, an influential Washington think tank.

Visiting Canberra this week, he says: “I have spent seven years of my life working in the United States Senate, and I never thought in a million years that I would see a mob trying to uncertify of a presidential election by storming the US Capitol. . It’s unthinkable, but that’s where we are. So there are certainly reasons for concern.

New documents obtained by Guardian Australia show how Australia has tried to avoid becoming embroiled in controversy during this turbulent time by emphasizing its faith in US institutions to ensure a peaceful transition of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden.

Australian officials were closely monitoring reports and statements from senior Trump cabinet officials in the weeks following the then-president’s refusal to concede defeat in the 2020 presidential election and during the period surrounding the attempted uprising at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

‘Will there be a peaceful transition of power?’

A briefing provided in early January to then-Australian Foreign Secretary Marise Payne noted that Trump “has not backed down and continues to pursue legal challenges to electoral processes.”

The briefing drew attention to a Washington Post report based on “an hour-long recording of a phone call between President Trump and Georgian Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the official in charge of administering Georgia’s elections. the state”.

“During the call, President Trump pressured fellow Republican Raffensperger to ‘find 11,780 votes’ and recalculate the election results in favor of Trump,” the backgrounder obtained under freedom of information laws.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advised Payne not to “add” to comments about Trump’s attempt to pressure Raffensperger.

A key line for public consumption was that American leadership was “indispensable” to addressing global challenges and that the alliance between Australia and the United States was “enduring and based on shared democratic values”.

But the situation was apparently worrying enough that officials sketched out a response if a reporter asked the direct question, “Will there be a peaceful transition of power?” »

Supporters of former US President Donald Trump. Polls show about seven in 10 Republicans disagree that Joe Biden is the rightful winner of the 2020 election. Photography: Wong Maye-E/AP

The official response was, “The United States is a great democracy that has managed peaceful transitions of power for many years and we are confident that will continue.”

The situation then escalated sharply with deadly violence in the United States Capitol, prompting Dfat to prepare a detailed account of events, including the temporary suspension of Congressional certification of electoral college votes.

“Following the securing of the Capitol building, certification of Electoral College votes continued into the night of Jan. 6, with Biden confirmed as President-elect,” the updated briefing explained.

“Some Republican lawmakers challenged Biden’s victories in Arizona and Pennsylvania, but the objections were overruled by most Republicans and all Democrats, and failed.”

This Dfat briefing noted that the protesters “had arrived from an earlier rally outside the White House addressed by President Trump” who had “claimed to be the rightful winner of an election that had been rigged and stolen.”

“Trump encouraged the crowd to march to the Capitol building and ‘give our Republicans … the kind of pride and boldness they need to take back our country,'” the document reads.

The briefing detailed the subsequent resignations of a number of senior Trump administration officials, the U.S. House of Representatives’ vote to impeach Trump for ‘inciting insurrection’ and the actions taken by the companies. of social media to suspend Trump’s accounts.

Updated ‘talking points’ for Payne included condemnation of ‘any use or threat of violence to interfere with democratic processes’ – but argued US institutions were ‘robust’ and praised ‘commitment publicly declared by Trump in favor of an orderly transition of power”.

Too close for comfort

The events of January 2021 and their continuing fallout have caused unease for policymakers in Australia and other US allies, who rely on the United States for security and whose leaders often proclaim “shared values”.

Insurgents loyal to Donald Trump storm the Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021.
Insurgents loyal to Donald Trump storm the Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

Polls show about seven out of 10 Republicans do not accept Biden was the rightful winner of the 2020 election — and the party base is increasingly punishing any Republican politicians who try to hold Trump accountable for lies. Liz Cheney, vice-president of the commission of inquiry on January 6, will lose her seat in Congress after an initial challenge.

Ahead of next month’s midterm elections, a number of Republican candidates who doubt the 2020 election results, or in some cases have actively worked to overturn them, are running for positions in which they would have enormous influence over how votes are cast and counted.

Fontaine admits he can’t say all is well. The former adviser to the late Republican Senator John McCain says there are “reasons for concern” – but he welcomes the fact that “the institutions of democracy have prevailed every time so far”.

“Trump himself says he didn’t lose the election, but who’s in the White House? Joe Biden and Trump at Mar-a-Lago,” says Fontaine, who has also served on the State Department, National Security Council and Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff.

“I mean, his own vice president certified the election of the real winner. Courts, including judges appointed by Donald Trump himself, have dismissed the frivolous claims. »

But some American allies fear that the events have seriously damaged the credibility of the West. French President Emmanuel Macron has revealed that foreign leaders have told him of their disenchantment. “A lot of people say to us, ‘Is this model so great? You look so unhappy. We watched what happened on Capitol Hill last year, we can see you at home, extremism is on the rise everywhere. You cannot solve extreme poverty. You argue about the climate.

Credibility gap

Former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating says the United States has lost credibility in standing up for democracy.

“This idea that the United States is an exceptional power, that it has the ear of God, proselytizing democracy, was good in the 20th century,” Keating said in a speech this week.

“The 20th century belonged to the United States [but] the 21st century belongs to someone else.

Keating renewed his longstanding criticism of Australia’s decision to move even closer to the United States through the Aukus nuclear submarine deal, arguing it would increase the chances of being drawn into a misguided war with China. He said the United States was “not interested in thinking about allies” but wanted “dummies”.

But Keating’s view of the strategic circumstances is not shared by senior members of the current generation of political leaders, who are alarmed by the new “limitless” partnership between China and Russia and continue to consider the United States as essential to Australia’s national security and stability. of the Indo-Pacific.

Opposition leader and former defense minister Peter Dutton said this week it was ‘a very uncertain world’ and that Australia needed ‘strong and powerful friends like the United States’ .

During a visit to Washington, Treasurer Jim Chalmers predicted the relationship would remain strong “no matter who holds the leadership positions in either country.”

Chalmers did not reveal whether the Australian government was concerned about the possibility that Trump might run again in 2024: “We play the cards that are dealt to us and we don’t get involved in the domestic politics of other countries.”

A briefing provided to then Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne in January 2020 noted that
A briefing provided to then-Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne in January 2020 noted that “Trump … continues to pursue legal challenges to electoral processes”. Photography: Mick Tsikas/EPA

Fontaine thinks it’s too soon to know whether Trump will run again or the likelihood of a win – but argues the ‘checks and balances’ remain intact.

“And it turns out that even when tested quite significantly, they held up, so I think they’re likely to hold up in the future,” Fontaine says. “The best-case scenario will be: let’s not test them.”

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