The White House press corps often gets accused — and sometimes deservedly so — of tossing softball questions at President Trump, but last Monday the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker threw one at the 45th POTUS that looked like one of Jamie Moyer’s late-career 60 mph “fastballs” that hung right over the plate, middle-in.
“You appeared to accuse [former president Barack] Obama of a crime yesterday — what did he do?" Rucker asked.
Instead of slamming it into the second deck, Trump whiffed, badly. For several days, the never-too-busy-to-tweet-while-90,000-Americans-are-dying president has been on the warpath about a scandal that he called “Obamagate” — or more typically, “OBAMAGATE!” — that he insisted was “the biggest political crime in American history” and that also “makes Watergate look small-time.” Now if he could just explain what the darn thing is!
“What is the crime?” Rucker followed up. “You know what the crime is," Trump replied. “The crime is very obvious to everybody,” he added, before an extended ramble in which he added that, whatever the heck “Obamagate” (pardon me for not using all-caps) is, “it’s been going on for a long time” and that “If you look at what’s gone on and you look at now, all this information that’s being released, and from what I understand that’s only the beginning.”
Trump’s answer reminded me of the famous scene in Napoleon Dynamite where a flummoxed Pedro, trying to explain why he should be elected student body president, says “vote for me, and all your wildest dreams will come true.” For the president, “Obamagate” is the place where all his wildest dreams come true, a heavenly cloud of unlimited pony rides and barkers and colored balloons, where there are always packed, cheering arenas and where no one ever dies — certainly not the 90,000 Americans who’ve perished after a president’s poor pandemic performance, and not Trump’s political future, now on a respirator.
In the reality-based world, Obamagate does not exist. But the idea of Obamagate — starting in Trump’s diseased mind and springing like a virus to his compromised and unjust Justice Department, his propagandists on Fox News’ quasi-state-media, and millions of truth-decayed supporters — is all too real. And in a weird, bizarro-world sense Trump is 100% correct that this is all worse than Watergate, “the biggest political crime in American history.” But the crimes are an American president moving in for the kill on the very idea of objective truth — and the dictatorship that inevitably stems from that destruction.
The factual trigger for all this stems from AG William Barr’s staggeringly successful-so-far effort to turn two years of legitimate investigation into Russia’s now-undisputed effort to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor, and the troubling evidence that Team Trump at the very least knew about it, into a completely different narrative — a “Deep State” conspiracy in which every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints.
Earlier this month, the attorney general, who earns his nickname of “Trump’s Roy Cohn” every day, led a political effort to overrule career prosecutors and ask a judge to throw out the felony conviction of Trump’s initial national security adviser Michael Flynn, who admitted twice under oath that he’d lied to FBI agents about his secret backdoor dealings with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.
The loose basis for Barr’s move — the latest in a yearlong campaign to undermine the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller and win leniency or absolution for the Trump aides ensnared in the scandal — was a) whether Flynn had been technically still under investigation for his dodgy ties to dictators in Russia and Turkey and b) questions about whether a diabolical FBI was trying to trick our heroic, absolutely not-a-criminal Flynn into lying. Beyond the Flynn dismissal (which is still pending before the federal judge in his case and may never happen), Trump’s allies in the government are implying something criminal in high-ranking officials in the outgoing Obama administration “unmasking” Flynn from his intercepted phone calls, because they wanted to know which U.S. citizen was undermining their Russian policy.
All of this is utter baloney, or — as veteran legal analyst Dan Abrams colorfully described it — “100% bull (bleep).” Let’s work backward:
Team Obama was, if anything, too timid in looking into Trump and Russia. The phrase “unmasking” can sound sinister (especially, weirdly, in a time of coronavirus) but it refers to a routine process that’s been used thousands of times by government officials — in the Trump and Obama administrations and those that came before it — so that America’s leaders can dig deeper into legitimate security threats without randomly spying on U.S. citizens. Suddenly, thanks to the attorney general’s crusade to turn Flynn from a felon into a victim, the notion that officials including presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden “unmasked Flynn” now has the same sinister tone of the “but her emails” trope that confirmed for millions of 2016 voters that a woman daring to seek the Oval Office should be “locked up.”
The real, valid criticism of Team Obama is not that it abused the powers of the presidency but that it was slow and overly cautious when the signals started blinking red in the summer and fall of 2016, as Russians illegally hacked computers and email accounts while Trump associates were interacting with key Russians more than 100 times. Obama took a low-key approach to this info — he thought it might look like interference in an election he was certain Hillary Clinton would win — and in hindsight that was a big mistake. But to not look into a Trump associate — Flynn — who was calling Russia ambassador Sergey Kislyak with the goal of basically undermining the Obama government’s sanctions against Russia for this election interference would have been more of a scandal than anything Trump is accusing Obama of.
The investigation wasn’t ending … it was beginning. The Flynn apologists conveniently omit the fact their hero was not a good guy. While he was advising the Trump campaign en route to his selection as national security adviser, Flynn was secretly getting paid for work on behalf of Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, even taking part in discussions about kidnapping the leading Turkish dissident who currently lives here in Pennsylvania. And he’d also received more than $34,000 to speak at a Moscow gala honoring a Russian propaganda outlet and sit next to Vladimir Putin.
Fairly or not, lobbying crimes are rarely prosecuted, and the FBI had apparently decided to wind down its Flynn investigation when the new info surfaced about his Kislyak phone calls. The Flynn apologists want to pretend that his new questionable behavior was like a hockey goal after the buzzer, when in reality it would have been a stunning failure of counterintelligence for the FBI not to — at the minimum — ask Flynn what was going on. Indeed, Flynn’s actions were highly relevant to an ongoing investigation called Crossfire Hurricane, not to mention the two-year Mueller investigation that loomed on the horizon.
Now, you’re outraged about how the FBI does business? Now?! Here’s one area where I could theoretically find common cause with the Trumpists. In the Flynn matter, the “Obamagate-is-real” critics have pounced on an FBI agent’s pre-interview notes that raise the issue of strategy, including a possible goal of catching Flynn in a lie that might lead to his resignation or even charges. You know what? … I, too, have been troubled for decades about how the FBI does its work, including entrapment tactics or charging family members (which happened in this case, with Flynn’s son) to force an anguished target to plead guilty to spare his or her kin.
But I have no sympathy for all the right-wingers — many of whom seem to have my email address memorized — who’ve suddenly become ACLU-level civil libertarians. In fact, they are the worst kind of flaming hypocrites — folks who weren’t troubled by years of illegal FBI spy operations on civil rights and anti-war activists, such as COINTELPRO or the Bureau sending a letter to Martin Luther King suggesting he commit suicide. Or, since the past is never past, what about the FBI’s recent obsessions with entrapping fringe-and-possibly-mentally-ill people as Islamic terrorists or tracking the lawful activities of Black Lives Matter activists? Unless you’re ready to criticize the whole range of FBI tactics, don’t you dare email me about poor Michael Flynn!
In fact, the FBI agents who interviewed Flynn in early 2017 gave him multiple opportunities to tell the truth and he decided to lie anyway. Why would he do that? If you really want to be a conspiracy theorist, it’s much less of a reach to think that Flynn’s higher-ups in Team Trump knew he was promising Moscow there’d be no real sanctions for meddling in our election and didn’t want that to come out, than to believe in an “Obamagate” theory that even its creator can’t explain.
In fact, three of Flynn’s predecessors as national security adviser have been convicted of crimes — for withholding evidence from Congress, lying to Congress, and the unauthorized taking of a classified document (after leaving office). In other words, the same kind of so-called process crime that now suddenly horrifies Team Flynn. One of those three — Ronald Reagan aide Robert McFarlane, up to his eyeballs in the Iran-Contra scandal — eventually got a White House pardon. The attorney general who engineered that 1992 injustice was William Barr.
Now we know that was just a trial run for Barr’s greatest subversion of all — creating an Alice-worthy wonderland in which the Mueller investigation of Russian election interference that resulted in 37 indictments and seven convictions is the crime and the folks playing political footsie with Putin’s Russia are the heroes. In the Flynn matter, Barr’s actions are totally undercut by the FBI agent who says his notes were misinterpreted, the career Justice Department lawyers who said Barr twisted their words, and the roughly 2,000 ex-prosecutors demanding his resignation.
But Barr — who was joking-maybe-not-joking when he said that “history is written by the winners” — is fully committed to a victorious Trump rewriting history until Jan. 20, 2025. It has taken most of Trump’s first term to cast away the semi-qualified ex-generals and Wall Streeters, and finally create the right team of acting flunkies, hacks and apologists to do his narcissist bidding, for the Fox News prime-time lineup to create the perfect megaphone, and for 2016′s voters to become 2020′s cultists, who now see any attack on Dear Leader as a personal affront. And that’s what it takes to turn around the battleship of truth surrounding Trump and Flynn’s troubling dealings with Team Putin into a state-sanctioned Big Lie, which is the ultimate goal of any aspiring dictator.
Indeed, the political realities of the COVID-19 crisis — since 90,000 deaths are a truth that can’t be erased, just clouded over — have made Trump’s efforts more frantic and thus more dangerous to any remaining shreds of credibility for American democracy. This weekend, for example, the president took his attacks on the First Amendment and press freedom to a dangerous new level, applauding pro-Trump protesters harassing a working journalist as “great people.”
Even worse, the ongoing assaults on the press and on the rule of law have created the atmosphere where Trump can push the boundaries of democracy by firing supposedly independent inspectors general in key federal agencies over transparently political vendettas — including this week’s Friday night news dump in which the State Department IG was fired after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requested it because the IG was probing … Mike Pompeo. Even a banana republic would be embarrassed by such shenanigans, at a moment when the world has stopped admiring the United States and started to pity us.
But make no mistake: Creating a nonexistent scandal called Obamagate out of whole cloth and selling it to the American people — with an assist from some of the same credulous journalists who made the 2016 election all about Hillary’s emails — would be the last mile on the road to an American authoritarianism. Even George Orwell would be spinning in his grave at a U.S. president’s ability to turn lies into truth for The 62 Million. That’s why for once I cannot quibble with what Donald Trump wrote. That "Obamagate” is indeed “the biggest political crime in American history.”