US political insider admits there are ‘reasons to worry’ for its democracy as allies wonder at damage done to the west’s credibility
A longtime US foreign policy official is frank when asked whether Australia should worry about risks to American democracy.
“I can’t, with a straight face, say there’s nothing to worry about,” says Richard Fontaine, head of the Center for a New American Security, an influential Washington thinktank.
Visiting Canberra this week, he says: “I spent seven years of my life working in the US Senate, and I never in a million years thought that I would see a mob trying to overturn the certification of a presidential election by storming the US Capitol. It’s unthinkable, but this is where we are. So there are certainly some reasons for concern.”
New documents obtained by Guardian Australia show how Australia tried to avoid wading into controversy during that turbulent period by stressing its confidence in American institutions to ensure a peaceful transition of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden.
Australian officials were closely following news reports and monitoring statements by senior members of Trump’s cabinet in the weeks after the then-president’s refusal to concede defeat in the 2020 presidential election and in the period around the attempted insurrection at the Capitol building on 6 January 2021.
‘Will there be a peaceful transition of power?’
One briefing provided to Australia’s then foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, in early January noted that Trump “has not conceded and continues to pursue legal challenges to electoral processes”.
The briefing drew attention to a report in the Washington Post based on “an hour-long recording of a phone call between President Trump and Georgia’s secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, the official responsible for administering the state’s elections”.
“During the call, President Trump pressured fellow Republican Raffensperger to ‘find 11,780 votes’ and recalculate the results of the election in Trump’s favour,” said the briefing material obtained under freedom of information laws.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advised Payne not to “add” to commentary about Trump’s attempt to pressure Raffensperger.
A key line for public consumption was that American leadership was “indispensable” to meeting global challenges and that the alliance between Australia and the US was “enduring and built on shared democratic values”.
But there was apparently enough concern about the situation for officials to outline a response if any journalist asked the direct question: “Will there be a peaceful transition of power?”
The official response was: “The United States is a great democracy that has handled peaceful transitions of power for many years and we have every confidence that will continue.”
The situation then escalated sharply with the deadly violence at the US Capitol building, prompting Dfat to prepare a detailed rundown of the events, including temporary suspension of the congressional certification of electoral college votes.
“After the Capitol building was secured, certification of electoral college votes continued on the night of 6 January, with Biden being confirmed as president-elect,” the updated briefing explained.
“Some Republican lawmakers challenged Biden’s victories in Arizona and Pennsylvania, but the objections were rejected by most Republicans and all Democrats, and failed.”
This Dfat briefing noted that the protesters “had arrived from a rally held earlier outside the White House addressed by President Trump” who had “claimed to be the legitimate winner of an election that had been rigged and stolen”.
“Trump encouraged the crowd to walk to the Capitol building and ‘give our Republicans … the kind of pride and boldness they need to take back our country,’” the document said.
The briefing detailed the subsequent resignations of a number of senior Trump administration officials, the US House of Representatives’ vote to impeach Trump for “incitement of insurrection”, and moves by social-media companies 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 that US institutions were “robust” and welcomed Trump’s publicly stated “commitment to an orderly transition of power”.
Too close for comfort
The events of January 2021 and their continuing fallout have caused discomfort for policymakers in Australia and other US allies, which count on the US for security and whose leaders often proclaim “shared values”.
Polls show about seven in 10 Republicans do not accept Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election – and the party’s base is increasingly punishing any Republican politicians who try to hold Trump to account for the lies. Liz Cheney, vice-chair of the committee investigating 6 January, will lose her seat in Congress after a primary challenge.
Ahead of next month’s midterm elections, a number of Republican candidates who doubt the 2020 election results, or in some cases actively worked to overturn them, are running for positions in which they would have tremendous influence over how votes are cast and counted.
Fontaine admits he cannot say all is well. The former adviser to the late Republican senator John McCain says there are “reasons to worry” – but he takes heart from the fact “the institutions of democracy have prevailed every time thus far”.
“Trump himself claims that he didn’t lose the election, but who’s in the White House? Joe Biden, and Trump’s at Mar-a-Lago,” says Fontaine, who has also worked at the state department, the national security council, and on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I mean, his own vice-president certified the election for the actual winner. The courts, including judges appointed by Donald Trump himself, dismissed frivolous claims.”
But some US allies worry the events have seriously damaged the west’s credibility. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, revealed foreign leaders had told him of their disenchantment. “Many are saying to us: ‘Is this model so great? You seem so unhappy. We watched what happened at the Capitol last year, we can see you at home, extremism is on the rise everywhere. You can’t solve extreme poverty. You’re arguing over the climate.’”
The former Labor prime minister Paul Keating argues the US has lost the credibility to champion democracy.
“This idea that the US is an exceptional power, that they have God’s ear, proselytising democracy, was fine in the 20th century,” Keating said in a speech this week.
“The 20th century was owned by the US [but] the 21st century belongs to someone else.”
Keating renewed his longstanding criticism of Australia’s decision to draw even closer to the US through the Aukus nuclear-powered submarine deal, arguing it would increase the chances of being drawn in to an ill-advised war with China. He said the US was “not interested in thinking 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 China and Russia’s newly inked “no limits” partnership and continue to see the US as critical to Australia’s national security and the stability of the Indo-Pacific.
The opposition leader and former defence minister, Peter Dutton, said this week that it was “a very uncertain world” and Australia needed “strong and powerful friends like the United States”.
On a visit to Washington, the treasurer, Jim Chalmers, predicted the relationship would remain strong “no matter who is in the leadership positions of either country”.
Chalmers would not reveal whether the Australian government was concerned about the possibility Trump could run again in 2024: “We play the cards that we’re dealt and we don’t involve ourselves in the domestic politics of other countries.”
Fontaine believes it is too soon to know whether Trump will run again or the likelihood of a victory – but argues “checks and balances” remain intact.
“And it turns out that even when they’re tested in some pretty significant ways they have held, so I think they are likely to hold into the future,” Fontaine says. “The best scenario will be: let’s not test them.”
Source : The Guardian