WASHINGTON ― “Obamagate” as campaign strategy or “Obamagate” as distraction from the coronavirus may be missing a much simpler explanation: “Obamagate” as Big Macs.
A political world trying to make sense of President Donald Trump’s weeklong push of a nonsensical accusation against his predecessor is again overthinking the issue, according to two top Republicans close to Trump. It is more akin to Trump indulging in one of his favorite comfort foods ― in this case, a return to the race-based attacks on the country’s first Black president that won Trump his stature within the Republican Party nine years ago.
“There’s no strategy. This White House could never be accused of having any strategy,” laughed one of the Republicans, an informal White House adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity. He added that he doubted Trump’s fixation on the faux scandal would last long. “There’s going to be something else that pisses him off.”
Trump began sprinkling the term “Obamagate” into his public statements last week after his attorney general decided to drop charges against Trump’s first national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who had already twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI regarding his phone conversations with Russia’s ambassador after Trump was elected but before he took office. Trump’s current acting director of national intelligence followed up by releasing a list of officials under then-President Barack Obama who had sought to learn details of those calls, and Trump has now turned that list into an accusation that Obama illegally spied on him.
“It was the greatest political crime in the history of our country. ... People should be going to jail for this stuff,” Trump told Fox Business this week. He went on to accuse both Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden, who is now the presumed 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. “This was all Obama. This was all Biden.”
Trump’s baseless assertion is illogical on its face. It requires Americans to believe that Obama is devious enough to have ordered an unfounded prosecution of Flynn to hamstring Trump’s presidency, but not devious enough to have publicized the ongoing FBI probe into the Trump campaign’s links with Russia prior to Election Day 2016.
It also renews attacks Trump began against Obama soon after the U.S. intelligence community revealed in January 2017 that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin had wanted Trump to win the presidency and had ordered Russian intelligence services to help him do so.
Trump at that time falsely accused Obama of “spying” on him and supposedly wiretapping his home at Trump Tower in Manhattan. “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” Trump posted on Twitter on March 4, 2017.
His own Justice Department admitted months later in a court filing that there was no basis for Trump’s claim.
And that 2017 accusation was itself a continuation of Trump’s yearslong pattern of vilifying the country’s first African American president and questioning his very legitimacy.
In 2011, Trump claimed that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to look into Obama’s birth certificate and that “they cannot believe what they’re finding.” None of that was true, but his enthusiastic support for the “birther” conspiracy theory helped make him an early favorite in the 2016 Republican primaries.
Attacking Obama was a common theme among candidates in that race. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz frequently rallied his audiences by promising to “repeal every word of Obamacare” and rip the Iran nuclear deal “to shreds” on his first day in office. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio suggested that Obama’s policies were not merely misguided but intentionally designed to hurt America.
Trump went far beyond anyone else, calling Obama and his policies “stupid” and claiming that Obama was incompetent.
Over his first three years in office, Trump has consistently taken credit for Obama’s accomplishments while blaming his predecessor for his own failures. For example, Trump repeatedly and falsely claimed that the economy under Obama had been terrible and that Trump had turned it around into a great success. In fact, steady growth began under Obama following the 2008-09 economic crisis and continued largely uninterrupted until the pandemic.
And when the pandemic struck, Trump ― who downplayed it for two months and called concerns about it “a hoax” ― blamed Obama again. He has complained that Obama did not leave him enough medical supplies, and even that Obama did not somehow leave him tests for a virus that did not come into being until nearly three years after Obama had left office.
Top Democratic strategists said Trump’s new fixation on “Obamagate” is clearly an attempt to change the subject as the coronavirus death toll in the United States climbs toward 90,000 less than three months after Trump promised that it would be zero.
“Trump knows this virus-economic story is not going well for him and is following his pattern of starting a dumpster fire elsewhere to divert attention,” said David Axelrod, the architect of Obama’s first-term victory in 2008.
And Josh Schwerin, who worked for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said the new accusation gives Trump’s supporters fresh material to work with. “It immediately gives his allies in right-wing media something other than deaths and job losses to talk about all day,” Schwerin said. “It’s a relatively low-risk, high-reward move for Trump, and so far it has worked pretty much every time he’s ever tried it.”
But the Republican White House adviser said the Democrats are giving Trump too much credit. He said that “Obamagate” has more to do with acting DNI Richard Grenell’s willingness to wreak some havoc before his permanent replacement is confirmed by the Senate, as well as Trump’s willingness to say anything, regardless of whether it’s true or not.
“It’s just an opportunity to stick his finger in Obama’s eye,” the adviser said. “This is something that just landed in his lap and they’re going to have fun with it.”