What does Trump mean when he uses the phrase? When a reporter asked that Monday, Trump served him this word salad:
Obamagate. It’s been going on for a long 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. And you’ll be seeing what’s going on over the next, over the coming weeks, but I—and I wish you’d write honestly about it, but unfortunately you choose not to do so … You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.
If Trump were actually interested in ferreting out crimes and punishing wrongdoing, this sort of vagueness would be a major liability, but that’s not what he’s going for.
When Obama released his long-form birth certificate and then joked that Trump could move on, he misunderstood the nature of the birtherism conspiracy theory. No document could ever put the matter to rest. There was always some way to explain away any evidence that showed Obama was born in Hawaii—forgery! Corrupt officials!—and moreover, the theory was always more about expressing the idea of Obama’s illegitimacy and interloping than about the forensic details of his birth. Trump continued to question Obama’s citizenship after the long-form certificate was released, only acknowledging that he was an American in September 2016; he reportedly continued to discuss the matter privately.
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“Obamagate” works the same way, echoing 2018 and 2019’s hottest Trump catchphrase: “witch hunt.” Trump’s dodge in the news conference allows the “scandal” to remain protean, changing to fit whatever need Trump has and whatever new information arises. If he offered any specifics, they might box him into a particular version, which could be falsified. When it’s this opaque, it’s unfalsifiable.
The vagueness means there’s little chance of charging Obama in a court of law, but that’s not the goal anyway, and besides, it’s too risky. Even with a Justice Department happy to cater to Trump’s whims, there are too many hurdles—constitutional law, criminal procedure, independent judges—who could wreck such a ploy. Instead, Trump is interested in assigning blame. That’s something Obama grasped perfectly in his WHCD jokes. Right after the quip about Biggie and Tupac, Obama went on:
We all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. For example—no, seriously, just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice—at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil Jon or Meat Loaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night.
But Obama provides Trump with a more useful villain than the washed-up actor, because no one questioned Busey’s qualifications to be on Celebrity Apprentice, whereas lots of people remain upset that Obama was able to live in the White House. Trump doesn’t have to mention race; it’s subtext that everyone understands, especially the segment of his base to whom the attack caters.