How to Understand ‘Obamagate’

Trump’s latest catchphrase is an attempt to recapture the force that first propelled him to political prominence.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, or his lack of a plan to do so, has been almost universally criticized, and while Trump has been obviously angry at the criticism, none of it managed to spur him into real action until Barack Obama weighed in. Not that he took action to improve the nation’s response, of course—instead, he demanded the prosecution of his predecessor.

On May 9, CNN reported that Obama had labeled Trump’s pandemic response “an absolute chaotic disaster” the day before, on a call with alumni of his administration. Early the next morning, as part of a long string of Mother’s Day tweets—as these rants exceed themselves, it’s become more and more difficult to find superlatives to adequately describe them—Trump retweeted a user who had mentioned “Obamagate.” The term has quickly become part of Trump’s vernacular, with 13 subsequent uses, including two yesterday.

Precisely what Trump is alleging against Obama is obscure, and probably beside the point. Trump isn’t really interested in alleging any particular crime. The point of “Obamagate” is to try to recapture the force that propelled Trump to political prominence—questioning the legitimacy of the first black president—as he heads toward a difficult reelection campaign in the midst of a global crisis.

Trump’s political career has always revolved, perversely, around Obama. Trump transformed himself from businessman into politician by questioning whether Obama was truly an American; now in office, Trump constantly measures himself against his predecessor, and finds nothing so maddening as being criticized by Obama.

According to some interpretations of Trump’s rise in politics, his Rosebud was the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. By then, Trump had already become the nation’s most prominent birther, espousing the racist and baseless theory that Obama was not a citizen or was not born in the United States. While most “respectable” members of the Republican Party rejected the claims or at least avoided openly endorsing them, Trump was tapping into a deep vein of racism and white identity politics in the GOP base that would later allow him to dominate the 2016 primary.

Trump was a guest at the dinner, and Obama ridiculed him during his remarks. Noting that he’d recently released his “long-form” birth certificate, Obama said Trump could “finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter—like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

Trump fumed as the rest of the room guffawed. (He would later end the tradition of presidential speeches at the dinner.) Confidants have since said it was the moment he decided to run for president. As president, Trump has often publicly contrasted himself to Obama, and he has sought to end policies—including the Affordable Care Act and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—associated with Obama, even when he supports their goals.

Given that Trump’s presidency has been, to borrow a phrase, “an absolute chaotic disaster,” Obama has shown remarkable restraint in seldom criticizing Trump openly. Even his comments on the call were delivered privately, though in a way that effectively guaranteed they’d be made public. And for Trump, it seemed to have been the 2011 dinner all over again: Here was the black president, laughing at him, and it was too much to take. The result has been several days of hyperventilation about Obama, including a demand yesterday that the Senate call him to testify.

It’s not really clear what Obama would be testifying about. Trump’s allies have said darkly that Obama knew about a counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which is neither scandalous, surprising, nor news. They have claimed that Obama and some of his aides asked for Michael Flynn’s identity to be “unmasked” in intelligence reports about conversations with the Russian ambassador, ignoring the fact that these people couldn’t have known it was Flynn until he was unmasked. As Tim Miller explains in a useful piece at The Bulwark, “Obamagate” is a long-running meme in certain conservative precincts, but it is neither coherent nor persuasive.

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.

“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.

From the perspective of the electorate as a whole, attacking the very popular former president right now makes no sense, and the general public will find the whole thing too arcane to follow, but Trump’s hardest-core followers will either already know the whole backstory or be ready to sign on even if they don’t. The president’s decision to focus on base maintenance, rather than expanding his coalition, may prove a dubious strategy come November, but it’s no accident. It worked for him in 2016, and he’s made a conscious choice to pursue it this time too.

Even if the necessity of vagueness precludes a true legal proceeding, it doesn’t mean there can’t be show trials in the Senate, reminiscent of when House Republicans called Hillary Clinton to testify on Benghazi in 2015—though that was generally accepted as a victory for Clinton in the end.

“If I were a Senator or Congressman, the first person I would call to testify about the biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA, by FAR, is former President Obama,” Trump tweeted yesterday. “He knew EVERYTHING. Do it [Senator Lindsey Graham], just do it. No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more talk!”

Graham quickly shot down the idea. “I am greatly concerned about the precedent that would be set by calling a former president for oversight,” he said in a statement. “No president is above the law. However, the presidency has executive privilege claims against other branches of government.”

But if the nation has learned anything about the relationship between Trump and Graham, it’s that the South Carolinian cannot resist the president. He was one of Trump’s fiercest critics during the 2016 campaign and has become one of his most slavish defenders; his flip-flops during Trump’s impeachment are embarrassing to recall. If Trump keeps up the drumbeat, the odds that the Senate will try to call Obama at some point between now and November are very high.

Graham understands perfectly what’s going on, as his statement yesterday showed.

“As to the Judiciary Committee, both presidents are welcome to come before the committee and share their concerns about each other,” he said. “If nothing else, it would make for great television. However, I have great doubts about whether it would be wise for the country.”

For Trump, however, good television always outweighs what’s wise for the country.