What started ‘Obamagate’?
On Friday, former US president Barack Obama expressed disquiet at the justice department dropping charges against Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired in early 2017 for lying about conversations with the Russian ambassador. On a recording obtained by Yahoo News, Obama warned that the “rule of law is at risk”. He also described Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic as “an absolute chaotic disaster”.
So Trump took the moral high ground and kept a dignified silence?
Not quite. He spent Mother’s Day diving into the rightwing fever swamps and unleashing a barrage of tweets and retweets assailing his predecessor. One said simply “OBAMAGATE!” (the suffix “gate” is a frequently used play on the Watergate scandal that toppled President Richard Nixon).
Another linked to a post that declared, “Barack Hussain Obama is the first Ex-President to ever speak against his successor, which was long tradition of decorum and decency.” Trump added: “He got caught, OBAMAGATE!”
Got caught doing what, exactly?
Trump also retweeted Buck Sexton, a rightwing podcaster who asserted that “the outgoing president used his last weeks in office to target incoming officials and sabotage the new administration”. The president then added his own commentary: “The biggest political crime in American history, by far!”
In other remarks on Thursday last week, Trump claimed without evidence that Flynn had been targeted by the Obama administration in an attempt to take down Trump himself. He bandied around terms such as “treason” and “human scum”.
Flynn, a retired general, pleaded guilty to making false statements in a charge brought by then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He now insists he did not lie and wants to back out of the plea.
Trump and his supporters have seized on recently disclosed FBI documents from interviews with Flynn, claiming they show he was the victim of “dirty cops”. One handwritten note from the FBI’s then-director of counterintelligence said: “What’s our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?”
Can this really be pinned on Obama?
A fact check by the Associated Press concluded: “It is true that the investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, and into Russia in particular, began during the Obama administration. But it continued well into Trump’s own administration. The investigation into Flynn was taken over by a special counsel who was appointed by Rod Rosenstein, Trump’s own deputy attorney general.
“The internal FBI correspondence that has emerged in the last two weeks also doesn’t reveal agents saying that the goal of the investigation was to take down a president.”
So what exact crime is Trump accusing Obama of committing?
The president himself does not seem to know. “‘Obamagate’,” he ruminated in the White House rose garden on Monday. “It’s been going on for a long time. It’s been going on from before I even got elected. And it’s a disgrace that it happened.”
Asked by a Washington Post reporter for the second time to name Obama’s exact offence, Trump replied cryptically: “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”
Clear as mud, then.
Could this be a distraction from something?
Some critics believe Trump is desperately trying to deflect attention from his confused and faltering response to the pandemic, as the US death toll tops 80,000 and the economy suffers the worst job losses since the Great Depression. They could also be a way of undermining Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, whom Trump will face in November’s presidential election.
And they are indicative of a longstanding obsession. Trump effectively began his political career by pushing the “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the US and therefore should not be eligible for the presidency. He has devoted huge efforts to undoing his predecessor’s legacy, for example attempting to kill the Affordable Care Act, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate accords and slashing environmental and other regulations.