Trump’s latest absurdity Obamagate isn’t just about deflecting attention from his monumental failure in controlling the spread of COVID-19. The reasons behind it are more disconcerting.
Obamagate Explained from Start to Finish!
On 10 May, Mother’s Day, when Twitter was awash with maudlin Mother’s Day tweets, US President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed was displaying a different kind of fervor, one that birthed a new term, and re-birthed an old allegation elaborately dressed in a conspiracy theory. In a flurry of 126 tweets posted over 16 hours, Trump pretended to unveil a conspiracy theory unimaginatively named “#OBAMAGATE!” According to it, former President Barack Obama directed officials in his administration to frame top Trump officials early in the incumbent President’s tenure in order to bring down his presidency. The following Monday afternoon, at a press conference in the Rose Garden, reporter Philip Rucker of the Washington Post asked the President what exactly was the “the biggest political crime in American history” that he was accusing Obama of committing.
Trump rambled a bit about the gravity of Obamagate, never quite explaining the crime. The reporter repeated his question – what exactly was the crime?
This time, Trump’s reply was contemptuously cryptic “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”
So, what exactly is Obamagate that is supposed to be obvious to everybody?
Old Wine in a New Bottle
Obamagate is really old wine in a new bottle – “Spygate” rejigged – with no new takers except the President’s fans, fawners, and flatterers.
Essentially, the unsubstantiated allegation holds that Obama, along with then-Vice President Joe Biden, former FBI Director James Comey, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and a few Ukrainian oligarchs spun a web of lies about Trump colluding with Russia in order to win the 2016 presidential election. The story was then allegedly picked up by members of the shadowy anti-Trump “deep state” in the US and used to snoop on and entrap members of Trump’s inner circle, including former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn pleaded guilty twice to lying to FBI investigators about his communications with the then-Russian ambassador to US Sergey Kislyak.
On 7 May, the US Justice Department – in a remarkable volte-face – dropped those perjury charges against Flynn, saying the FBI wasn’t justified in investigating him and that his guilty plea should be ignored. Flynn now insists he was framed by the FBI and wants to back out of the plea.
Tiny Truth, Big Lies
The Obamagate conspiracy theory has its roots in an Oval Office meeting that took place between Obama and his national security team on 5 January 2017, just a fortnight before Trump assumed office. Although the meeting was common knowledge, Trump and his allies seized on it days ago when the Justice Department’s motion to exonerate Flynn included releasing declassified records referring to this meeting.
The fact that the meeting came just a day after the FBI was preparing to formally close its investigation into Flynn’s suspected dealings with Russia – but ultimately decided to keep it open – and that Obama knew about Flynn’s intercepted phone conversations with Kislyak prompted Trump and Republicans to infer that the Flynn investigation was an anti-Trump conspiracy engineered by Obama and his top aides. So, it is true that the investigation into covert ties between Russia and the Trump campaign started during the Obama administration.
But it’s also true that the investigation continued into Trump’s administration and was in fact taken over by a special counsel appointed by Rod Rosenstein, Trump’s own deputy attorney general.
Moreover, there is not a shred of cogent evidence to suggest that Obama directed the FBI to frame Flynn. Ludicrously, Trump and his band of supporters are also crying foul over what they see as the politically motivated “unmasking” of Flynn. Unmasking is a common protocol by which authorized US national security officials to unmask the identity of Americans whose communications are collected during intelligence intercepts of foreign officials. Basically, a routine practice has been turned on its head and made out to be a sinister attempted coup.
There you are: Trump’s tiny ‘truth’ is generously peppered with big lies. And the lies could well be used to implicate and discredit Biden, Trump’s opponent in the upcoming Presidential elections.
Not Such a “Bright” Picture
The President is not someone to take kindly to criticism; not especially criticism coming from Obama. So, when Obama warned that the “rule of law” was at risk following Flynn’s acquittal and was heard describing the US response to the pandemic as an “absolute chaotic disaster” in a leaked recording of a phone conversation, Obamagate or some other born-out-of-vendetta gate had to be coming. But critics also say that Obamagate appears to be a frantic attempt to deflect attention from Trump’s dismal handling of the COVID-19 crisis. In a damning testimony before the Congress on 14 May, Dr. Rick Bright, the whistle-blower who was fired as the head of a federal medical research agency tasked with developing a vaccine for COVID-19, said the Trump administration refused to heed his warnings early this year to stock up on masks and other supplies, jeopardizing American lives in the process.
Dr. Bright also underlined the need to develop a strategy to combat the pandemic, implying that the administration was still struggling to formulate one.
So, you have a decimated economy – more than 20 million jobs lost – the highest death toll in the world, and a government that’s trying harder to make its citizens look the other way than end their suffering.
Tapping into a Visceral Emotion
Anybody who’s been following American politics would know that Obama has always been Trump’s favorite whipping boy for everything that goes wrong. Even the last couple of weeks have seen Trump scapegoat the Obama administration for the shortage of medical supplies and coronavirus testing failures. The latter gives away the buffoonery of it all – the virus didn’t exist until early this year. But this isn’t unexpected, given that Trump’s leapfrog to power was conspicuously marked by a string of racist, vulgar attacks on his predecessor.
One such conspiracy theory floated by Trump as far back as 2011 was “Birtherism” which claimed that Obama was not born in the US and slyly implied that he was Muslim.
At a deeper level, Obama’s stereotyping as the untrustworthy immigrant of color by Trump and the right-wing media taps into one of the visceral emotions of white Americans – namely the belief that theirs is a race entitled to hegemonize politics and culture in the United States. And therefore, Trump’s relentless efforts at denigrating Obama and criminalizing his legacy must be understood as an attempt to reclaim what was deemed usurped by the interloper. So be it Birtherism or Obamagate – all are driven by the same sentiment of resentment.
Unfortunately, Trump’s fan base – mostly white conservative middle and upper-class Americans – is more than likely to gleefully lap up these dubious allegations being swirled around through tweets, speeches, and media houses such as Fox News.
Just as Trump doesn’t tire of oscillating between blaming China and accusing Obama for the cataclysmic disaster that COVID-19 has turned out to be, Democrats and the elite press don’t tire of savagely denouncing the man and his maunderings. But instead of being undermined, the man bends over, picks up the shards of insults, and refashions them into weapons to beat himself with. And almost magically, he is transformed into the victim hero for his base. That’s “#TRUMPFEAT!” for you.