the national circus

Frank Rich: ‘Obamagate’ Means Trump Is Desperate

Let the president tell you an extremely convoluted story. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Trump’s “Obamagate” conspiracy theory, COVID-19’s spread across the country, and Joe Biden’s basement-bound campaign.

In the face of some gloomy election forecasts, Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell have begun to take aim at an unlikely, if familiar, target: President Obama. Is this the typical Trumpian floundering or a broader test for a kind of attack that we might see more of? 

“Obamagate,” in Trump’s brilliant coinage, is a conspiracy so vast, a crime so dastardly, that it should guarantee his reelection as soon as he figures out how to tell voters exactly what it is. As best as I can glean from his spokespeople on the Rupert Murdoch payroll — at Fox News, the New York Post, and the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal — it was a coup that involved both installing Trump in the White House so that he could preside over the most corrupt and incompetent administration in American history and propelling a beloved national hero, the Kremlin sycophant and former Obama official Michael Flynn, to prison. For a moment, it seemed that at least that second goal might be thwarted by Bill Barr’s effort to hand Flynn a Get Out of Jail Free card. But thanks to the deep-state intervention of a U.S. district judge in Washington this week, Flynn may end up behind bars after all. Obamagate Accomplished!

Whether running against Obamagate in 2020 constitutes a winning strategy for Trump is dubious, however. For one thing, to follow its convoluted plot requires a reimmersion in the Russian-collusion narrative — an epic that has previously failed to rivet the public in either the Mueller report or during the impeachment proceedings. It is unlikely to grab a huge audience on a third go-round. Besides, those who view the former president as the evil Kenyan-born love child of Saddam Hussein and George Soros were voting for Trump anyway and don’t need Obamagate as a further incentive. More likely is the prospect that Trump’s ever-escalating vilification of Obama will drive up turnout among those in the Democratic base who voted in insufficient numbers for Hillary Clinton in 2016, notably African-Americans and the young.

It’s also hard to see how McConnell’s piling on is going to help the GOP hold the Senate. Last week, the Senate majority leader faulted Obama for being a “little bit classless” for daring to make the shocking observation that the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a “chaotic disaster.” If that’s the case, far more classless is McConnell who, while married to an Asian-American member of Trump’s Cabinet, remained silent when the president slurred the ethnicity of a Chinese-American CBS reporter on-camera at a White House press briefing.

Clearly, Trump is worried about his campaign. CNN and the Times reported that he threatened to sue his own campaign manager, Brad Parscale, while reviewing falling poll numbers. Trump’s effort to blame everything on the Chinese is manifestly doomed, since there are enough video clips and tweets of him slobbering over Xi Jinping and praising China’s response to the coronavirus to fuel a half-dozen Democratic attack ads. Rumors persist that Mike Pence could yet be dumped from the ticket for Nikki Haley in an effort to persuade suburban voters that Trump doesn’t hate all women of color. And even as Trump floated Obamagate over the weekend, he is lining up additional nemeses to run against. In the calculation of the Washington Post reporter Toluse Olorunnipa, he accused “no fewer than 20 individuals and organizations” of criminal conduct in the Mother’s Day massacre he conducted on Twitter, among them the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, whom he accused of murder. If, as the government’s former top vaccine official Rick Bright fears, the administration’s chaotic response to COVID-19 is exposing America to “unprecedented illness and fatalities” in the fall, the mind boggles at what conspiracy theories Trump and his far-right media accomplices will yet unleash. We may look back on Obamagate as the good old days.

On the same day that Trump declared the U.S. had “prevailed” on coronavirus testing, NBC News uncovered an unreleased report from the White House pandemic task force warning of spiking infection numbers across the South and Midwest. How far are we from a politics that is able to address a crisis of this scale?

Very far, to put it mildly. Trump is hoping that political propaganda using (scripted) sound bites like “prevailed” will allow him to claim victory over the crisis rather than taking action. But his favorite new slogan — “transition to greatness” — is of no more use in battling the intertwined crises of the coronavirus and the economic collapse than Herbert Hoover’s “prosperity is just around the corner” was in warding off the Great Depression after the 1929 stock-market crash. Trump simply doesn’t understand that, for once, there are incontrovertible facts that will stand in the way of his effort to rewrite reality. More people will die, or they won’t. More people will lose their jobs, their health care, and their savings, or they won’t. Period. While it’s certain that his true believers will ignore any unpleasant empirical realities as they crowd into restaurants and return to MAGA rallies, Americans not in the GOP death cult will have their eyes open.

Yesterday, Trump went so far as to dismiss Anthony Fauci’s warning of the potential peril to children if they return to school while the coronavirus continues to rage and before we understand the potentially lethal COVID-related pediatric inflammatory syndrome that has now turned up in more than a dozen states since first claiming lives in New York. Fox News prime-time hosts, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest of the alt-right auxiliary are following suit by portraying Fauci as public enemy No. 1. The only federal official who stands between us and repeated waves of COVID will continue to be downsized by Trump, if not fired, so that Trump apologist Deborah Birx can take center stage.

Republicans in the Senate, who might challenge their president’s wanton disregard of public health, remain part of the problem, not the solution. The only proactive responses by GOP senators to the pandemic came from North Carolina’s Richard Burr and Georgia’s Kelly Loeffler, who appeared to trade on inside information when cashing out of vulnerable stocks before the pandemic erupted in full force.

In this week’s Senate hearing, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, whom history may mark as patient zero should there be a full COVID-19 outbreak in the Capitol, endorsed the reckless notion of sending children back to school prematurely. The so-called moderates — a.k.a. Vichy Republicans — are no better. The hearing’s chair, Lamar Alexander, tried to cover for Trump by praising his dismal record on testing as “impressive” and sermonizing that the hearing’s main point was to plan for future pandemics — even as the death count in the current pandemic was rapidly rising in new hot spots, including in his home state of Tennessee, from which Alexander conducted the hearing while in self-quarantine. Then there was Susan Collins of Maine who, as James Poniewozik of the Times pointed out, started the hearing without a mask and later put one on “as if trying to keep one lung in each camp.” You’d think the craven Collins might have enough self-respect to conduct what is likely to be the final months of her political career with a modicum of dignity, but you would be wrong.

Joe Biden has apparently decided that his campaign HQ will be his Delaware basement. Does staying inside help or hurt his chances with voters?

Certainly there is a lot of commentary in the so-called liberal-media sounding notes of incipient doom. Typical is a news story at the Times attributed to four reporters, in which it was noted that Biden’s “campaign has so far not solved the unprecedented challenges of running for the White House from the seclusion of his home” and that he is “exhibiting some of the same difficulties that proved troublesome in the primary.” Not to mention that “he lacks Mr. Trump’s bully pulpit” and that he won’t “enjoy the same traditional multiday coronation” that other nominees have received at a party convention. All true and yet (a) Biden ended up winning the primary handily; (b) Trump is barely leaving his home either thus far; (c) Trump’s use of his “bully pulpit” has been so politically counterproductive that his own allies implored him to stop the daily reality-show press briefings; and (d) the polling “bounce” provided by televised national conventions has been fading for years.

For all of Biden’s many faults as a candidate — this year and in all his previous and uniformly ill-fated presidential campaigns — let’s give him credit for doing one thing right nearly six months before Election Day: He has everything to gain by staying in the basement while Trump grabs as much rope as he wants to hang himself. This can’t, and presumably won’t, be a permanent campaign strategy. But, for now, let’s remember that, even in a non-pandemic political year, most American voters don’t want to hear a lot from politicians before Labor Day.

Frank Rich: ‘Obamagate’ Means Trump Is Desperate