“Obamagate” conspiracy theory falls apart after a reporter asks President Trump one question

After hundreds of tweets pushing the "Obamagate" claims, Trump cannot name one thing he believes Obama did wrong

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published May 12, 2020 11:58AM (EDT)

Barack Obama; Donald Trump (Getty/Salon)
Barack Obama; Donald Trump (Getty/Salon)

President Donald Trump spent Mother's Day weekend firing off a tweetstorm baselessly accusing former President Barack Obama of unspecified wrongdoing. When a reporter finally confronted Trump about what crimes he believed Obama had committed, the president could not name one thing he believed his predecessor had done wrong.

Trump shared dozens of tweets Sunday about "Obamagate," a conspiracy theory brewed up by the right alleging that Obama was behind the FBI investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The tweetstorm came after the Justice Department decided to drop criminal charges against FlynnAttorney General William Barr intervened in the case even though Flynn twice pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators.

When asked Monday what crime he believed Obama had committed, Trump fired off a string of vague talking points.

"Obamagate — It's been going on for a long time," the president said. "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."

When pressed again on what crime he believed Obama had committed, the president responded by directly attacking the reporter who had confronted him. 

"You know what the crime is — the crime is very obvious to everybody," he said. "All you have to do is read the newspapers — except yours."

Trump similarly offered no specifics on Twitter as he declared that "Obamagate makes Watergate look small time" and was the "biggest political crime in American history, by far!"

Trump's conspiracy push came after it was revealed that Obama had slammed the administration for dropping the charges against Flynn in a leaked recording of his comments to former aides.

"That's the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic — not just institutional norms — but our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk," Obama said in the audio. "And when you start moving in those directions, it can accelerate pretty quickly, as we've seen in other places."

Trump responded with a barrage of tweets and retweets, all of which effectively argued that "the outgoing president used his last weeks in office to target incoming officials and sabotage the new administration."

Flynn's attorney Sidney Powell alleged in an interview with Fox Business that "the whole thing was orchestrated and set up within the FBI, [former Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper, [former CIA Director James] Brennan and in the Oval Office meeting that day with President Obama."

A Federalist article shared by Trump claimed that Obama had instructed top officials at the Justice Department and the FBI to withhold information about the Flynn investigation from the incoming Trump administration. The article cited an email from former national security adviser Susan Rice saying Obama told officials that "we are mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia" during a meeting before Trump took office.

Rice previously told House investigators that the email was misconstrued.

"We were not informed by Director Comey or the attorney general that there was an active investigation of anybody in the Trump orbit," she said in an interview released last week. "We would not have asked that question because, in the Obama White House, we maintained scrupulously the firewall between people in the White House and contacts with Justice about potential or actual criminal matters."

An Associated Press fact-check also rejected the claims.

"It is true that the investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, and into Russia in particular, began during the Obama administration. But it continued well into Trump's own administration. The investigation into Flynn was taken over by a special counsel who was appointed by Rod Rosenstein, Trump's own deputy attorney general," the outlet explained. "The internal FBI correspondence that has emerged in the last two weeks also doesn't reveal agents saying that the goal of the investigation was to take down a president."

Despite a lack of evidence to support the conspiracy theory, Fox News quickly became an echo chamber for Trump's attacks.

Fox News Judge Jeanine Pirro accused former Vice President Joe Biden of participating in a "bloodless coup" in the Obama administration to overthrow Trump.

Fellow host Sean Hannity claimed that Obama's leaked comments showed that he was "sending a message to deep state operatives to go out and do more dirty work."

Fox Business host Lou Dobbs went all-in on the conspiracy theory on his show.

"We know that the whole thing was not only a conspiracy to overthrow a president, but it was a web of deceit and lies that were the basis for the special counsel and all of the nonsense that the radical Dims, the deep state, and yes, the Obama administration put in motion," he alleged. 

But outside of that Fox echo chamber, Trump and his allies were accused of using the conspiracy theory to distract from his bungled coronavirus response.

"We are seeing his approach take shape: a strategy of distraction to obscure a policy of abdication," Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote. "We have seen the complete breakdown of presidential communication on COVID-19. But that, it seems, is exactly where Trump wants to be. It is better for him if the country fixates on his conspiratorial madness, rather than focusing on his utter failure and willingness to sacrifice lives."

Republicans on Capitol Hill have said the Senate is not planning to investigate Obama despite Trump's claims.

"I'm not anticipating calling President Obama," Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., whose committee is probing the origins of the Russia investigation, told Politico.

"That's already being looked at, and we've got relevant committees up here that are talking a look at some of those issues, too," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said. "I always think that at the end, eventually the truth comes out, and I'm sure it will here, too."

But Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, seemed to back additional scrutiny of the allegations.

"Given all we know now about the fake foundation of the inquiry, it's time we ask: What did Obama and Biden know? And when did they know it?" Grassley said Monday.

Frank Figliuzzi, the former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence, said hearing lawmakers back Trump's baseless allegations was a concerning sign.

"The kind of truth-twisting required to launch such false allegations is alluring to Trump-supporting conspiracists who already throw around groundless terms like 'Deep State.' But for these theories to transition from mere social media innuendo to formal accusations would be a chaotic and divisive development," he said in an op-ed at NBC News. "Moreover, any criminal investigations would require cooperation from Barr."

But, as with his dubious push for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump may be more interested in muddying the waters rather than actually pursuing his allegations.

"Whether such an investigation will occur, Trump and Fox News have already achieved something else: a weekend during which Trump supporters could flood the platform with content about Obama and the minutiae of the 2016 election," BuzzFeed News' Ryan Broderick wrote, "just when the coronavirus crossed a total of 1.3 million cases and 80,000 deaths in the United States."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregate Barack Obama Donald Trump Fox News Joe Biden Michael Flynn Politics Tv William Barr