On Monday, before storming out of a press conference when he was confronted through the work of three female reporters over a seemingly racist answer to a question about his response to COVID-19, President Donald Trump was questioned about some confusing tweets he had written over the weekend.
The president was asked by Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker about tweets he had written in reference to “Obamagate” and the “biggest political crime in American history.”
“What is the crime exactly that you’re accusing him of?” Rucker asked as a follow-up when Trump wouldn’t answer a question about what crime former President Barack Obama may have committed.
“You know what the crime is,” the president responded. “The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”
The clip is worth watching in full:
The fact that Trump himself is unable to describe the “political crime” of which he is accusing Obama in plain English would seem to indicate that there is no such crime. Attorney General William Barr’s successful efforts, however, to turn the Department of Justice into a protection racket for the president’s felonious cronies has some thoughtful legal and historical scholars worried that Trump and Barr might weaponize the DOJ further. On Tuesday, one day after Trump failed to articulate what “crime” Obama may have committed, the New York Times reported that acting Director of National Intelligence (and former right-wing commentator) Richard Grenell declassified a list of Obama officials who had “sought to learn the identities of Trump associates swept up in surveillance of foreign officials” and that he was giving this material to the Department of Justice. This raised fears that Barr’s DOJ might actually attempt to prosecute former Obama administration officials for “Obamagate,” even as no such articulatable crimes exist. Coming on the heels of Barr’s decisions to overrule his own department attorneys to seek a dismissal of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s guilty plea and a recommended sentence reduction for Trump associate Roger Stone, this concern is perhaps understandable.
But the history of conservative media’s yearslong obsession over “Obamagate,” which David Frum in the Atlantic accurately described as “a twisting ghetto of craziness that is impenetrable to outsiders,” may help point to Trump’s actual motives for resurfacing a story he has been highlighting in some form or another since at least the second month of his presidency.
The origins of “Obamagate” come from a Trump tweet on March 4, 2017, about six weeks after his inauguration. At the time, FBI Director James Comey was investigating Flynn for lying to the FBI and Trump was leaning on Comey to drop the investigation. Trump would eventually fire Comey and seek to remove the special counsel who was ultimately appointed to investigate Trump’s likely efforts to obstruct justice in the Flynn case, but in March 2017 all of that criming would have been just a glint in the new president’s eyes.
In his March 2017 tweet, Trump wrote: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” The allegation that Obama spied on Trump turned out to be a lie, which the president conceded two years later, but it did cause a feeding frenzy in the mainstream press.
More importantly, for Trump’s purposes, it set the entire conservative political, legal, and media apparatus on a yearslong quest to vindicate Trump’s claims and pin all of Trump’s legal woes on the former president, even as a half-dozen Trump associates were convicted of or pleaded guilty to actual federal crimes in cases prosecuted by Trump’s own Department of Justice.
Over the years, the “twisting ghetto of craziness” has taken various names and forms—from “Spygate,” to the “Nunes memo,” to its current “Obamagate” iteration—but what has remained the same is there has never been a coherent narrative or any proof of an actual abuse of power or crime by the former administration.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Obamagate” didn’t spring forth wholecloth from Trump’s brain but came directly from the conservative media apparatus that contributes to roughly 95 percent of the president’s mental space.
As CNN’s Brian Stelter documented two days after the “wires tapped” tweet was written, the idea that Obama had sought to spy on Trump and thus create the complicated chain of events that might lead to his removal from office—but hasn’t—originated from right-wing radio host Mark Levin, jumped to Rush Limbaugh, then Breitbart, then into Trump’s Twitter feed, and ultimately into the coverage of most mainstream media outlets.
As Stelter wrote in 2017:
Breitbart News has given the conspiracy theory a name: “DeepStateGate.” Others are going with “ObamaGate.” And Fox News host Sean Hannity is asking: “What did OBAMA know and when did he know it???”
One month after Trump’s tweet, Bloomberg News’ Eli Lake issued a report that would seem to lend credibility to the notion that Obama targeted Trump, reporting that Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice had requested the “unmasking” of the identities of Trump officials, such as her successor, Michael Flynn, in intelligence reports surrounding Russia’s influence campaign in the 2016 election. (As CNN reported this week, this was “not out of the ordinary.” Rice has since given congressional testimony publicly acknowledging she did this, and she has not been accused of any crime.)
Now “Obamagate” and “unmasking” are back in the news. The cycle of elevation from the right-wing media ecosystem, to the president’s Twitter feed, to the mainstream press and the legal system, and back again has been running for more than three years. Here are some of the ways that various right-wing commentators and the president have used the “Obamagate” label and its iterations along the way.
• A few days after the president’s “wires tapped” tweets, political commentator Jeffrey Lord in an article in the American Spectator titled “Investigate Obamagate” wrote, “Obamagate is here. And Mark Levin is on the case.”
• In February 2018, American Spectator columnist George Neumayr published an article about the Nunes memo headlined: “Memo: Obamagate Confirmed.”
• That same month, conservative commentators and author of the 2018 book Spygate: The Attempted Sabotage of Donald J. Trump, Dan Bongino said on Levin’s radio program that “Obamagate” was “the most consequential political scandal in the history of the United States.”
• In another appearance from around that time, Bongino said that “The Obamagate spying scandal is about to expose Obama for what he was.” He continued: “This Obamagate spying scandal and the way liberals and conservatives see what’s going on is absolutely indicative of the coming Civil War. And I don’t mean a hot war, but I mean a cold ideological one.”
• A few months later, in May 2018, Trump himself tweeted, “SPYGATE could be one of the biggest political scandals in history!” This was related to the Trump administration’s public unmasking of a U.S. intelligence asset and the, ultimately disproven, claim that Obama placed a spy in the Trump administration.
• That same month, Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani claimed that Obama’s top intelligence officials had briefed the former president on the plan to spy on the Trump campaign. (Again, this was eventually debunked by a monthslong Department of Justice inspector general investigation.)
• In May 2019, Wayne Allyn Root wrote a Newsmax article titled “America About to Learn the Sordid Details of Obamagate.” Root wrote: “The participants in this treasonous coup and conspiracy are starting to turn on one another. Soon as the prospect of long prison terms beckon, I predict they will all turn on the chief architect, President Obama.”
• And last October, as Donald Trump was being investigated in the House of Representatives for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in the plot to extort Ukraine, former White House aide and right-wing radio host Sebastian Gorka declared, “The house of cards that is Obamagate is collapsing” and “the crimes of the last administration are being uncovered, and people are running scared.” Gorka did not elaborate on what those crimes might be.
Now, perhaps emboldened by Barr’s apparent willingness to cross any line for Trump, the president seems to be reviving the conspiracy theory. This comes under the backdrop of Barr’s hand-selected prosecutor, John H. Durham, investigating the Department of Justice and the previous administration over its handling of the Russia counterintelligence inquiry.
It is possible that Barr and Durham will try to use the latest “revelation” of Grenell’s “unmasking” list as an opportunity to try to throw Susan Rice—or, hell, Obama himself—in federal prison for crimes that nobody has been able to articulate and that may be difficult to prove in front of a jury. On the other hand, he may not. A report on Monday from Politico suggests that Senate Republicans do not have the political stomach for locking up Trump’s political enemies and want their own investigatory fingerprints off of this steaming mess of flaming garbage. (Sen. Rand Paul did, however, on Wednesday invite Grenell to testify about the “unmasking” list.)
What seems likelier is that this is yet another effort to distract from Trump’s latest display of his unfitness of office—the tragic and disastrous failures that have led to more than 80,000 deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic and a total economic collapse. The president and his allies could just be recycling “Obamagate” through the internet to rile up Trump’s base, distract the mainstream media, and further seek to exonerate the president of his own long catalog of likely criminality because they are all out of new ideas.
For more of Slate’s news coverage, listen to What Next.
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.