President Trump likes to accuse his political antagonists of crimes, almost always imaginary, and his favorite target is President Obama. Trump claims Obama illegally persecuted him, though the details of the accusation have changed. Three years ago, he claimed the crime was a “tapp” of his phones (“How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process.”) The charge evolved to claiming Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, committed a crime by “unmasking” Trump officials surveilled in talks with foreign leaders.
Trump seems to return to the charge in times of stress. He has renewed the charge, calling it “OBAMAGATE!” When asked by a reporter what crime he was claiming Obama had committed this time, Trump replied, “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody.”
Trump’s defenders insist that even though all his previous accusations against Obama have fallen apart, this one deserves serious consideration. National Review columnists David Harsanyi (“Obamagate Is Not a Conspiracy Theory”) and Kyle Smith (“Don’t Shrug at Obama’s Michael Flynn Scandal”) typify the response in conservative media, which are rallying to Trump’s most recent attempts to prove his predecessor set him up.
OBAMAGATE!, at least the current version of it, revolves around the treatment of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. FBI agents interviewed Flynn in January 2017, as part of a well-founded counterintelligence investigation, the basis for which included (but was not limited to) the fact Flynn made himself subject to Russian blackmail by lying about a secret conversation he had with Russia’s ambassador. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents. Smith builds his argument around an unfortunate analogy to a black teen framed by menacing FBI agents. Not many black teens accosted by law enforcement have collected tens of thousands of dollars from Russia, then taken more undisclosed money from another foreign country while serving as national security adviser to a presidential candidate.
The Trumpists charge that Obama orchestrated the whole Flynn investigation in order to take revenge on or otherwise discredit the incoming administration. They can’t prove that Obama played any role in ordering the FBI counterintelligence investigation, nor even that it was unfounded. In place of proving either, they have substituted insinuations.
“Suspecting Obama of being behind the persecution of Michael Flynn is pretty easy when you remember the backstory of these two men’s relationship,” writes Smith. “Knowing of Obama’s interest in these matters, is it plausible that the FBI acted as it did without his approval?” Harsanyi argues in the same vein: “What makes anyone believe these people wouldn’t create a pretext to spy on the opposition party? If anyone does, they shouldn’t, because on top of everything else, we know that Barack Obama was keenly interested in the Russian-collusion investigation’s progress.”
In other words, they have no evidence Obama ordered the FBI’s (completely appropriate) interview with Flynn, but, you know, it’s the kind of thing Obama would do.
Such a plot would certainly be in character for the Barack Obama that exists in the febrile imagination of the conservative media. A secret FBI plot to entrap his successor would be the natural capstone to eight years of scheming to foist devious liberty-sapping socialist schemes onto an unsuspecting public. But it bears no resemblance to the actual Obama, who in point of fact repeatedly bent over backward to avoid weaponizing intelligence and law enforcement.
In real life, Obama appointed a Republican to lead the FBI, who then was pressured by a combination of Republican leaks in his agency and Republicans in Congress to publicly reopen an investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton days before the election, at the same time it publicly denied the ongoing investigation into the Republican nominee. Not only did Obama refuse to interfere with this process after it had played a pivotal role in Trump’s election, he privately comforted the FBI director.
Before the election, Obama was also so skittish about sharing intelligence that Russia was working to help elect Trump that he tried to get congressional Republicans onboard before making any public warning to state election officials. When they refused and denounced his intelligence as partisan, Obama meekly held off rather than risk appearing to manipulate intelligence to help his preferred candidate. (“Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move,” the Washington Post later reported.) Trump and his allies have actually taunted Obama for this, turning his hesitation to appear to abuse his office into a way to blame him for allowing Russian interference.
If Obama is the sort of president who would create a pretext to spy on the opposition party, it’s odd he was so cautious about using those powers when he had ample pretext. For that matter, it’s odd that he never ginned up an investigation of his opponent in 2012, when Obama had even more at stake in the outcome.
For Trump, “Obamagate” is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. He believes every president does, and should, use the Department of Justice as a weapon to protect his friends and harass his rivals. The greatest ire he has reserved for any of his underlings is the yearslong grudge he’s held against Jeff Sessions for the sin of following the black-letter law requiring his recusal from the Russia investigation, and refusing Trump’s entreaties to violate the law by un-recusing himself.
Trump’s constant demands for investigations of various enemies in politics and the news media are a source of embarrassment for some of his more respectable defenders. The august conservative intellectuals at organs like National Review don’t want to sic law enforcement on Joe Scarborough, Adam Schiff, or CNN like Trump does. But they very much do buy into his wild claims against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and are happy to give them legitimacy. The conservative media has greeted Trump’s latest outpouring of invective with respectful nods and assurances to their audience that the president has a solid point.