Politics

Trump asked the Australian prime minister to help investigate Mueller probe origins

President Donald Trump announces opioid response grants to state governments in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, September 4, 2019.
Erin Scott | Reuters

President Donald Trump sought help from the Australian prime minister to investigate the origins of former special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

A Justice Department spokesperson on Monday evening confirmed the conversation, which an administration official described to NBC News as a routine call between two heads of state ahead of state seeking the assistance of another country's law enforcement agency. It was "asking his law enforcement to work with ours," the official said.

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The call to Scott Morrison, the Australian leader, came recently after Attorney General William Barr in May asked John Durham, the U.S. Attorney in Connecticut, to lead an inquiry into whether the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign was properly predicated. The DOJ spokesperson said Barr asked Trump to make the call to seek Australia's help.

"As the Department of Justice has previously announced, a team led by U.S. Attorney John Durham is investigating the origins of the U.S. counterintelligence probe of the Trump 2016 presidential campaign," the spokesperson, Kerri Kupec said in a statement. "Mr. Durham is gathering information from numerous sources, including a number of foreign countries. At Attorney General Barr's request, the President has contacted other countries to ask them to introduce the Attorney General and Mr. Durham to appropriate officials."

The New York Times first reported this story, later confirmed by NBC News. The administration official, however, said the department had an issue with the Times describing Trump's call as pushing the Australian prime minister.

"The wasn't a push," the DOJ official says. "This was an ask."

The news comes amid an ongoing impeachment inquiry stemming from allegations that Trump pushed the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

Trump's call with the Australian leader also raises additional questions about Barr's relationship with Trump since the Justice Department has long maintained its independence from the presidency. A declassified whistleblower complaint at the center of the impeachment inquiry, released last week, claimed that Trump sought to use Barr to assist Ukraine in investigating Biden. The Associated Press reported on Sunday that when Barr learned he had been lumped into the conversation he was "surprised and angry."

Barr has also been lobbying foreign governments, such as the U.K. and Italy, to help in the administration's efforts to reexamine the assessments of the U.S. intelligence community regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to The Washington Post.

A spokesperson for the Australian government told NBC News in a statement that the country has regularly been open to working with the U.S.

"The Australian Government has always been ready to assist and cooperate with efforts that help shed further light on the matters under investigation," the spokesman said. "The PM confirmed this readiness once again in conversation with the President."

Former FBI director Robert Mueller took over the investigation into Russian meddling and potential links with the Trump campaign in May 2017 following the abrupt firing of former FBI director James Comey.

Mueller submitted his report this past March and testified in front of Congress in July. His report noted that a foreign policy adviser for the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, had gone to a London bar to have drinks with an Australian diplomat in May 2016.

While there, Papadopoulos reportedly told the diplomat, Alexander Downer, that he'd heard that Russia had thousands of emails that would embarrass Trump's presidential rival, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The Australian government then reported Papadopoulos' remarks to the FBI. That sparked a nearly two-year investigation spanned the globe and roiled the Trump administration.

"I'm old enough to remember when Democrats actually wanted to find out what happened in the 2016 election," White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement. "The Democrats clearly don't want the truth to come out anymore as it might hurt them politically, but this call relates to a DOJ inquiry publicly announced months ago to uncover exactly what happened. The DOJ simply requested that the President provide introductions to facilitate that ongoing inquiry, and he did so, that's all."

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