U.S. President Donald Trump has been shouting the phrase on TV and Twitter for the last week, broadly gesturing at the latest MAGA conspiracy theory that paints Barack Obama as the ultimate villain, and places himself in the familiar position of victim-in-chief.
The entire “Obamagate” conspiracy theory is based on cherry-picked facts, half-truths and entire falsehoods involving Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser. Flynn is the Trump ally who pleaded guilty — twice — to lying to the FBI about talking to Russia before Trump took office.
Nevertheless, the Department of Justice recently tried to drop charges against Flynn at his sentencing hearing, prompting accusations of political interference to benefit a Trump crony.
Flynn is the only known person to have committed a real crime (i.e. lying to the FBI) in connection with the narrative, but Trump has described him as a “hero” and flirted with the idea of pardoning him.
The president has described “Obamagate” as “the biggest political crime in American history, by far!” He has suggested that “treason” occurred somehow, but he has not clearly laid out his allegations, even when asked directly to do so. Instead, he appears to be playing fill-in-the-crime with his die-hard supporters, without ever making a coherent case for criminal charges.
On Monday, a reporter pointedly tried to get Trump to explain what he means by “the greatest political crime in American history.”
“What crime, exactly, are you accusing President Obama of committing, and do you believe the Justice Department should prosecute him?” Phil Rucker of the Washington Post asked at a news conference.
“Obamagate!” Trump said, before rambling about the severity of the phantom crime. “It’s a disgrace that it happened,” he said. “If you look at now, all of this information that’s being released. And from what I understand, it’s only the beginning.”
Rucker asked Trump to describe the crime, specifically. Trump said: “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody.”
Trump didn’t provide a clear answer beyond that remark, but he did hammer on one of his favourite topics: the 2016 election, and his long-held belief that Barack Obama has been undermining him ever since he won.
The unproven conspiracy theory
Trump’s followers believe, without evidence, that Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden, former FBI Director James Comey and other government officials — known in MAGA world as the “deep state” — hatched a plot in 2016 to spy on the Trump campaign and undermine it through the Russia investigation. According to the conspiracy theory, Obama and his allies “unmasked” Flynn in a wiretap in order to frame him.
The conspiracy theory can go a few different ways depending on which far-right rabbit hole you fall down, but it tends to play out a bit like a Marvel movie, with cameos from all of Trump’s favourite targets over the last few years. Every version positions Trump and his allies as the innocent victims in a grand plot by sinister, unseen forces, without evidence to support those claims.
The conspiracy theory tends to gloss over the fact that Flynn admitted to lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, and the fact that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to benefit Trump.
The evidence-based facts
Trump has been complaining at length about Flynn’s “unmasking,” which he claims was done to spy on his campaign.
The rules around unmasking are complex, but essentially, the U.S. listens to foreign agents’ phone conversations all the time. Sometimes those agents speak to U.S. citizens, and those Americans’ names must be masked in intelligence reports.
Top White House and intelligence officials can legally request for a citizen to be unmasked if it will help with an investigation, but they don’t know the person’s name until the unmasking is complete. The Trump administration has used the same process to unmask thousands of names to date, according to federal data.
Prior to Trump taking office, officials in the Obama administration saw that a U.S. person was talking to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Officials also had intelligence that Russia had meddled in the election to help Trump, so they looked into the conversation.
Obama officials submitted an unmasking request and the name came back as Michael Flynn, as records show.
The Obamagate conspiracy theory alleges that Flynn came up at a meeting between Obama, Comey, Biden and other top law enforcement officials on Jan. 5, 2017, around the time of the unmasking. The meeting has been public knowledge for over two years, but Trump and his allies have recently twisted it into more “proof” of a greater plot.
There is no evidence that Obama and his staff discussed Flynn in that meeting, or that they were plotting against Trump.
Trump also pounced on evidence presented by Flynn’s lawyers earlier this month, which showed FBI agents discussing their approach to interviewing Flynn in early 2017.
One handwritten note from the day of the interview shows an FBI official trying to recap the internal debate about Flynn. The note raised questions about the FBI’s tactics, but did not indicate any influence from Obama.
“What’s our goal? Truth/admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” the notes say.
None of the documents appeared to undercut the central allegation that Flynn had misled the FBI. They also did not indicate that Obama told the FBI to trap Flynn in a lie.
The birth of ‘OBAMAGATE’
The phrase “Obamagate” appears to have spawned out of the far-right Twittersphere, where someone apparently added “Gate” to Obama’s name in order to evoke Watergate, a shorthand for the infamous political scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Trump retweeted a message about “Obamagate” on May 10, then blasted out the phrase a few hours later.
He has since added the term to his regular stream of rage-tweets, shouting it out just as he did the phrase “WITCH HUNT” during the Robert Mueller investigation.
‘He got caught!’
Trump’s other claim about “Obamagate” is based on an audio recording obtained by Yahoo News, in which Obama can be heard discussing the sudden turn in Flynn’s sentencing. Obama was expressing concern that a Trump ally appeared to be getting favourable treatment from the Department of Justice, which is supposed to be free of political interference.
“He got caught!” Trump tweeted on May 11, while retweeting a false claim that it’s “unprecedented” for a former president to criticize his successor. (Many ex-presidents have done it, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.)
Obama criticized the U.S. Department of Justice for its unprecedented effort to back away from sentencing Flynn, even though Flynn had admitted his guilt.
“There is no precedent that anyone can find for someone who has been charged with perjury just getting off scot-free,” Obama said on the private call, which was reportedly with members of the Obama Alumni Association. Obama suggested that the “rule of law is at risk” if Flynn can get away with what he did. “When you start moving in those directions, it can accelerate pretty quickly as we’ve seen in other places,” he said.
Obama also described Trump’s handling of the coronavirus as a “disaster.”
Critics have accused Trump of using the Obamagate conspiracy theory to distract from his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, during which 86,000 Americans have died and 1.4 million have been infected to date.
Trump has frequently congratulated himself for the U.S. handling of the outbreak, and he rarely ever talks about those who have died. He’s also pushed for the U.S. to re-open in order to rescue its economy, which he has tied to his re-election chances in November.
Fox and Trump’s friends
Trump and his allies in Congress have been pushing the Obamagate narrative all week. Trump has also praised Fox News for devoting much of its time to his conspiracy theory in the midst of this pandemic.
“Thank you Fox and Friends for covering, supremely, the greatest political scandal in the history of the United States, OBAMAGATE,” he tweeted on Friday morning.
Trump sat down for a friendly interview with Fox on May 14, in which he again failed to outline his full allegations against Obama.
“If I were a Democrat instead of a Republican, I think everybody would’ve been in jail a long time ago,” Trump claimed. “This is the great political scam, hoax, in the history of our country,” he continued, even as the reporter rushed to agree with him.
“This was all Obama! This was all Biden!” he said.
Obama has not directly responded to Trump’s allegations. However, he did have a brief message to share with Americans on Twitter Thursday.
He tweeted one word: “Vote.”
—With files from Reuters and The Associated Press