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Taking #Obamagate Seriously

President Trump’s bonkers theory, explained.
May 12, 2020
Taking #Obamagate Seriously
(GettyImages / Shutterstock)

It is easy to overlook some of the everyday corruptions that President Trump has inflicted on the body politic. After all, his unique blend of logorrhea, mendacity, and clownishness creates an atmosphere that lends itself to dismissing his daily absurdities. But when we just shake our heads and say that’s just Trump being Trump, we are buying into the false framing preferred by the president and his defenders: that he is a successful leader with great acumen for political gamesmanship and yet also at the very same time an amateur who does not understand the impact of his own words, and should not be taken seriously.

The president’s recent obsession with #Obamagate is a stark example of this.

On the surface, Trump’s deranged Mother’s Day tweetstorm and the halfhearted trolling of his predecessor at his Monday press conference seem like just a couple more examples of the mad king feeding his fans a juicy porterhouse—in this case, a theory about President Obama’s supposed crimes that is so stupid that even the president himself can’t answer the most basic question about it.

But underneath the palpable jealousy and the desperate attempt to change the subject to something, anything besides the slow-motion pandemic-management disaster that he is overseeing, is a very real effort by President Trump and his enablers to undermine the rule of law, rewrite the history of the 2016 election, and give a hall pass to a hostile foreign power for its interference in our election. Trump’s allies in the conservative media and the Justice Department are taking #Obamagate very seriously. This conspiracy theory is informing our foreign policy, millions in tax dollars are being spent in an effort that is going “full throttle” to prove that it is correct, and countless Americans are being fed a faux history involving a crime that supposedly “makes Watergate look small time.”

In that context, “President Fabricates Crimes By His Predecessor” should be front-page news, an unprecedented assault on the office of the president and our system of justice. An action that under any previous president would have sparked a massive backlash from within his own party among institutionalists concerned about both their short-term political interests and the broader historic implications.

Part of the reason that it isn’t happening is, again, the that’s-just-Trump-being-Trump impulse: His awful absurdity and absurd awfulness have dulled the senses to such a degree that the journalists who are accused of peddling “fake news” attacks on him don’t take him seriously, and even people who are well attuned to politics don’t understand what he’s talking about and believe that his #Obamagate spiel is some throwaway nonsense. I’m confident that Joe Republican Senator could not begin to describe to you with any specificity the contours of the purported Obamagate scandal. Hell, the president himself couldn’t even describe it during his press conference.

But his comic incompetence does not make such a matter less serious, it makes it more serious.

So for those who have dismissed this as another passing fancy, here is a breakdown of what exactly #Obamagate is and why it matters.

Last year I went deep into the heart of the MAGA web to understand the web of conspiracies that President Trump has since dubbed #Obamagate.

Go ahead and read that piece—a rollicking 3,000 words of crazy that I highly recommend you ingest with a stiff cocktail. But the tl;dr of what MAGAworld saw as the state of play when it was written was this:

Four years ago, there was a global conspiracy—comprised of President Obama, Vice President Biden, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director Jim Comey, much of the FBI, the DNC, a company called CrowdStrike, multiple foreign intelligence services, and Ukrainian oligarchs—to undermine Donald Trump by planting a phony conspiracy theory that he was colluding with the Russians to win the 2016 election. These deep state operators framed several top Trump officials, fabricated evidence, and spied on the campaign with the end goal of committing the biggest fraud in American history in order to derail Trump.

This is the “crime” that President Trump is accusing Obama of, even if he doesn’t realize it. (N.B.: One of my proudest moments at The Bulwark was hearing from a number of bona fide MAGA media consumers last year who said that, despite being a snarky Never Trump cuck, I pretty much got their story right.)

There are a number of problems with this theory, though. The main ones being (a) when spelled out all in one place it is absurd on its face and (b) if anything, the supposed deep-staters’ actions in 2016 served to help Donald Trump politically, particularly in the final weeks of the election when the FBI reopened the investigation into their supposedly preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton and then absolved Donald Trump of the actions they were supposedly framing him of in the New York Times.

These flaws have led some Trump defenders who eschew the more absurd parts of the pre-election “hoax” theory to focus on a more narrow “hoax”—one in which, after Trump won the election, President Obama orchestrated an effort to stymie the incoming administration with bogus investigations.

This part of the #Obamagate claim is premised on two main elements. First is a meeting summary from Susan Rice from January 5, 2017:

On January 5, following a briefing by IC leadership on Russian hacking during the 2016 Presidential election, President Obama had a brief follow-on conversation with FBI Director Jim Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in the Oval Office. Vice President Biden and I were also present. . . . President Obama began the conversation by stressing his continued commitment to ensuring that every aspect of this issue is handled by the Intelligence and law enforcement communities “by the book.” . . . From a national security perspective, however, President Obama said he wants to be sure that, as we engage with the incoming team, we are mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia.

Second is contemporaneous information from within the FBI about the investigation into Trump’s short-tenured first national security advisor, Michael Flynn—specifically emails and handwritten notes:

What is our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?

The Trump fabulists have used these elements to construct a story in which President Obama instructed his intelligence apparatus to “frame” Flynn as part of the deep state coup against Trump.

Regardless of one’s view of the FBI approach to Flynn—and I’ve seen compelling arguments made on both sides—the leap from critiquing the prosecutorial tactics to claiming that this was an attempted coup orchestrated by President Obama, as Judge Jeanine argued last night on Fox, is a leap that even Evel Knievel couldn’t land.

For starters, as far as we know, President Obama was not whispering in Flynn’s ear when Flynn lied to the FBI about contacts with a hostile foreign power, and so even if this were an attempted coup, it was one that could’ve been quite easily rebuffed by simply not lying to federal agents.

As for the Rice notes, to believe that President Obama was acting illegally—or even inappropriately—when being cautious about Russian intelligence requires either a view of the environment on January 5, 2017 that lacks all context about what happened in the 2016 election or having bought into the Trumpian alternative-history hoax, line, and sinker.

After all, Flynn did lie about his contacts with Russia.

Flynn did lie about being a foreign agent on the payroll of both Turkey and Russia.

Trump did call for Russia to hack Clinton’s emails.

Trump did hire a fixer with a history of working for Russian interests as his campaign chairman.

Trump’s previous fixer did have communications with the Wikileaks about the emails Russia hacked to help Trump.

Trump’s son did email Russian operatives welcoming dirt against Hillary Clinton.

In these extraordinary circumstances, with an incoming national security advisor who had literally taken income from the country in question, would you not expect the outgoing president to have discussed the implications in a meeting with his national security team? What exactly is the crime there again?

The answer is “very obvious to everybody”: none at all.

While the mainstream press moves on to other matters or simply mocks the absurdity of the president’s huffing and puffing about #Obamagate, the right-wing media plunge their audiences deeper into it. Some Republican officials who ought to know better are playing along with the scam, while others cower in fear of a microphone because they have convinced themselves that the president spouting insane conspiracy theories about how his wires were tapped by Obama is less important than their vote on the farm bill.

The result is that President Trump gets to live in an alternate reality of his own choosing. One that allows him to level unfounded allegations against his foes without even attempting to interact with anything approaching a fact or a piece of evidence, while never facing any consequences. It’s his longstanding, postmodern m.o.—in business, in his personal life, and in politics: Create a preferred universe of convenient facts, then insist they are true, no matter what.

There’s no reason we all should let him.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.