Analysis

With Obamagate, Trump returns to a favorite distraction tactic

For years, Trump has promoted theories about his predecessor to distract from unwelcome news, elevate himself and excite his base. The details are rarely important.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump launched his political career turbocharging the conspiratorial birther movement. Now Trump is trying to keep his presidency afloat with another theory about his predecessor: Obamagate.

Over the past three days, Trump has tweeted and railed about claims that President Barack Obama, in his final days in office, orchestrated a plot to damage the incoming president. “He got caught, OBAMAGATE!” Trump tweeted on Sunday, one of 126 tweets and retweets — the second-highest single-day total of his presidency — that kept returning to Obama.

The term has become an all-caps rallying cry for Trump. “OBAMAGATE makes Watergate look small time!” he tweeted on Monday. Trump then pinned an “OBAMAGATE!” tweet to the top of his profile to promote a segment from Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

The theory, as Trump’s allies have described it, is that Obama was involved in an effort to entrap Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI. The Justice Department last week moved to dismiss Flynn’s case, giving the theory a boost, as did newly released documents detailing the early stages of the Flynn probe. But the specifics are murky.

“You know what the crime is,” Trump said on Monday, when pressed at a White House briefing about what exact offense had been committed. “The crime is very obvious to everybody, all you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”

The blunderbuss trumpeting of an anti-Obama narrative is a tactic Trump has employed throughout his political career. Over the years, Trump’s attacks on Obama have veered from the baseless — the president is not an American citizen, Obama tapped my phones — to exaggerations and falsehoods about his predecessor’s record — Obama shipped plane loads of cash to Iran, Obama left the strategic national stockpile empty. In each case, the real estate developer-turned president has used these stories to distract from unwelcome stories while elevating himself and exciting his base. The questionable details are rarely important.

The “OBAMAGATE!” effort appears no different. It has drawn attention away from the rising coronavirus death toll and a spate of cases within the White House — an inconvenient counterpoint to the president’s insistence that it is safe to return to work. It has provided chum to Trump-boosting pundits. And it portrays Trump as victorious over enemies who are tied to his likely 2020 opponent, Joe Biden.

“President Trump always does best when he has a foil to go head to head with,” said Jason Miller, the former communications chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign and co-host of the podcast “War Room.” “But the other thing that’s important here — this is a reminder that Joe Biden is part of the establishment, part of the problem, part of the Washington infrastructure.”

Matt Gertz, who has spent several years tracking Fox News coverage as a senior fellow at the liberal watchdog Media Matters, sees it as an attempt to hype up an ongoing Justice Department investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, led by John Durham, the top federal prosecutor in Connecticut.

“This is, I think, the beginning of the story,” Gertz said. “I think that this is coming as Fox News and Trump and Republicans are trying to create space for Attorney General William Barr to announce some sort of sweeping result of the investigation that he and John Durham undertook,” Gertz said.

Trump’s attempts to delegitimize Obama by insinuating conspiracy theories go back years. In 2011, Trump revived the inaccurate claims that Obama was born in Kenya as he went on a PR blitz floating the possibility of a presidential run. When he did run for president several years later, Trump continued to hint at other Obama conspiracies, vaguely claiming, for instance, that Obama had “something to hide” by not using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.”

The pattern continued into Trump's presidency, reaching its apex when the president falsely accused Obama of ordering the wiretapping of Trump Tower.

And now, Trump has finally affixed Obama with a “gate” suffix.

The new line of attack revved up after DOJ moved to drop its charges against Flynn, who had been trying to rescind his guilty plea over lying to authorities about his conversions with the top Russian diplomat shortly before Trump took office.

Some of Trump’s allies have alleged Obama was part of an FBI plot to trick Flynn into lying as part of an attempt to take down the next president. They point to an Oval Office meeting on Jan. 5, 2017, at which Obama, Biden, former FBI Director James Comey and others discussed Flynn and the broader probe into Russian election interference.

The theory got an injection of new life with the recent release of FBI notes from Flynn’s case and interviews House lawmakers conducted with several Obama figures about the situation. While the documents contained no smoking gun, Trump’s allies have seized on several details, including that the FBI was about to close the Flynn case before new evidence prompted officials to keep it open.

“This really was a conspiracy to do something that we’ve not seen in American history, and that was to actually perform a coup,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said on Fox Business News.

Andy McCarthy, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York and a contributor to the conservative National Review Online, said that, while there are important legal questions to untangle in this case, Trump’s opinions — especially when he frequently gets the factual basis wrong — inevitably turn the issue into a political game.

“The fact remains that there was a lot of information out there, and a lot of reasons to believe that the intelligence and law enforcement apparatus of the executive branch of the Obama administration was trained on the Trump campaign in 2016,” he noted, adding that Trump’s tweeting “intensified it, and it also made it a oftentimes nonsensical discussion because we [start] talking about the stuff that he got wrong.”

For the Trump campaign, though, the upside is they can now counteract Biden’s strategy of affiliating himself with a rather popular ex-president, according to Miller.

“The reality of this is Joe Biden is going to get all of the warts from the Obama-Biden presidency, but he'll probably get very little of the upside, and he's going to be forced to own a lot of the mistakes that they've made,” he said.

Matt Lewis, a conservative columnist at the Daily Beast frequently critical of Trump, called this strategy “insane,” arguing it was more likely to increase voter turnout for Biden.

“Trump has now put Obama on the ballot, so to speak,” Lewis said. “Even if this story blows over for the next controversy, Team Biden can now plausibly run ads saying, ‘Vote for me or Trump will prosecute President Obama.’”

And the latest fixation on prosecuting Obama happens to burst into the spotlight right as Trump faces two existential threats to his presidency: the coronavirus pandemic, and the rapidly cratering economy that has resulted.

“I think Trump is perfectly entitled, since [the Russia probe] was used to try to destroy his capacity to govern, to try to establish for people that the whole thing was reckless and irresponsible,” McCarthy said. “At the same time, I think he runs the risk of looking like he's more interested in that, than in the crisis of the moment. And just like everybody else, he's going to have to find the right line to walk on that, and he may not.”