As American deaths from the coronavirus approached 85,000, the largest outbreak in the world by far, President Donald Trump was playing, “I Know Something You Don’t Know” with a newspaper reporter.
“In one of your Mother’s Day tweets,” The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker asked the president last week, “you appeared to accuse (former) President (Barack) Obama of ‘the biggest political crime in American history, by far.’ Those were your words. What crime exactly are you accusing President Obama of committing, and do you believe the Justice Department should prosecute him?”
It was the kind of question that Trump and his devoted MAGA supporters routinely call “hostile,” “nasty” or “fake news.” How dare we journalists quote this president’s own words back to him — especially when he doesn’t have a good answer.
“Uh, Obamagate, it’s been going on for a long time,” the president responded, slowly at first, as if he was silently trying to sort out which version of reality he would trot out this time. “It’s been going on from before I even got elected and it’s a disgrace that it happened, and if you look at what’s gone on and if you look at now, all this information that’s being released — and from what I understand, that’s only the beginning — some terrible things happened, and it should never be allowed to happen in our country again.”
“Disgrace?” “Going on for a long time?” “Terrible things happened?” That was not an explanation. It was a Trump-splanation, the verbal equivalent of treading water as the sharks circle around, trying to hold him accountable for his own statements and tweets.
When Trump then tried to move on to another reporter, Rucker politely asked again, what exactly is the crime that Obama allegedly committed?
Here Trump resorted to a familiar target: the press.
“You know what the crime is,” he said. “The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”
The only thing “very obvious” about “Obamagate” is that it appears to be a hashtag in search of an actual scandal. Think of it as Trump-style target marketing, launched like code to provide his core supporters with another excuse to ignore his controversial responses to the pandemic crisis.
Among the allegations: Obama and Biden had advance knowledge of the FBI’s plans to interview Trump’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn about phone calls he had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the 2017 presidential transition period.
With that knowledge, Biden allegedly requested the “unmasking” of Flynn, who turned up as an unnamed American in intelligence collected from the communications by foreigners under U.S. surveillance. Former Obama administration officials deny that Biden or Obama knew in advance about the FBI’s interview of Flynn, a contention that is backed up by the same documents that Team Trump cites to support their claims.
Besides, requests from the White House to unmask the identities of Americans who turn up in collected intelligence are hardly unusual. Several thousand such requests, including from the Obama and Trump administrations, are approved by the National Security Agency each year for authorized purposes.
But as we have seen with other Trumpian scandal charges, from birthers to Benghazi, this president does not need to have much “there” there to make groundless charges. All it took in this case was a biting critique from his predecessor in office about his handling of the pandemic.
An “absolute chaotic disaster” is how Obama described the current president’s handling of the pandemic in a recording obtained by Yahoo News of a conversation with veterans of his administration.
Obama also criticized the Justice Department’s dropping its criminal case against Flynn, saying he feared that the “basic understanding of rule of law is at risk.”
With the coronavirus pandemic escalating, Trump was eager to change the subject.
Even if he could not persuade any new supporters with his shallow-as-a-birdbath attacks, he could boost spirits — and anger — in his own base with his old reliable BOF defense: Blame Obama first.
But if Trump wants to run against Obama, whose national approval ratings still run higher than Trump’s, that’s hardly bad news for Democrats.