President Donald Trump and his allies added a new dimension this week to their “deep state” conspiracy theory, directly accusing former President Barack Obama of leading a supposed “coup” to sabotage the Trump presidency.
Seizing on a viral hashtag, Trump dubbed the alleged scandal “Obamagate” and has been flooding the zone promoting exaggerated theories and false claims since the weekend. In the President’s view, he was the victim of the “biggest political crime in American history” and the Obama appointees who he claims tried to undermine his administration deserve jail time for their misdeeds.
Trump ramped up his rhetoric over the weekend after Obama criticized the Justice Department for dropping its criminal case against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump’s new focus on Obama also served as a diversion from the coronavirus pandemic, as the nationwide death toll passed 80,000 and the unemployment rate tripled to a staggering 14.7%.
For years, Trump has claimed without proof that Democratic partisans within the Justice Department and the FBI abused their powers to investigate members of his campaign and undermine his presidency. “Obamagate” appears to be an extension of this underlying theory, which is part of the President’s sustained effort to rewrite the history of the Russia investigation.
There is a pattern to Trump’s messaging, and “Obamagate” is no different. The President is blending real findings of FBI misconduct with self-serving theories and cherry-picked information to weave together a much deeper and more sinister story.
Obama’s concerns about Flynn
Several factors recently sparked the chatter from Trump and right-wing media outlets about Obama’s purported role in the Russia investigation and alleged “deep state” conspiracy.
They’ve pointed to documents that were unsealed by Flynn’s lawyers in the lead-up to the Justice Department’s bombshell decision to drop the case against Flynn for lying to the FBI about his conversation with the then-Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak.
Those newly publicized files included details of a January 5, 2017, meeting at the White House that included Obama, then-FBI Director James Comey and then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. Both officials were Obama appointees; Yates is a Democrat and Comey is a Republican.
The Oval Office meeting was convened to discuss the intelligence community’s startling findings about Russian interference in the 2016 US election. Days later, the US intelligence agencies released a public report with their assessment, stating that Russia had launched a coordinated and sustained attack on the US election, in an effort to undermine American democracy and also help Trump win.
According to recently revealed testimony from Yates, the meeting included a discussion about Flynn’s controversial phone calls with the Russian ambassador in late December 2016.
The calls had been intercepted by routine US surveillance of foreign diplomats, and the content of the conversations raised concerns among US counterintelligence officials. On those calls, Flynn undercut sanctions that Obama had imposed as punishment for Russian meddling in 2016 and undermined the US position on a United Nations resolution about Israel, according to court records.
At the meeting, Obama asked Comey “whether the White House should be treating Flynn any differently” as they transitioned between administrations, according to Yates’ testimony to special counsel Robert Mueller. She said she didn’t remember Comey’s response.
Then-Vice President Joe Biden was also in the room, according to then-national security adviser Susan Rice. Trump and his allies have pointed to that fact in recent days as they look toward making “Obamagate” a campaign issue against Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
“It’s time we asked, what did Obama and Biden know and when did they know it?” Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has probed the FBI’s Russia investigation, said Monday on the Senate floor. On Tuesday, Grassley sent a letter to the Trump administration asking for more documents about Flynn to be declassified, including transcripts of his calls with Kislyak.
In an ABC News interview on Tuesday, Biden was asked about the 2017 Oval Office meeting and his knowledge of the FBI’s Flynn investigation before leaving office. “I was aware that there was, that they had asked for an investigation,” Biden said, apparently referring to the FBI, “but that’s all I know about it.”
Leaks, lies and blackmail
In the weeks after that Oval Office meeting, everything changed.
A “senior US government official” leaked the existence of Flynn’s calls to The Washington Post, a possible felony because the information was classified. Since the earliest days of his presidency, Trump has decried what he said were “illegal leaks” that fueled suspicion about Russia.
As Trump’s team scrambled to respond, Flynn lied to senior officials and denied that he had discussed the sanctions with Kislyak, according to the Mueller report. Incoming Vice President Mike Pence, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and White House press secretary Sean Spicer publicly repeated Flynn’s lies in media interviews.
At this pivotal time before Trump’s inauguration, the scale and scope of Russia’s election interference were just coming into focus. The Obama administration became concerned that Flynn was a national security risk because the public lies about sanctions made him vulnerable to blackmail by Russia – which more than likely had its own tapes of the calls.
After debates within the FBI on how to handle the situation, Comey sent two agents to interview Flynn shortly after Trump took office. Breaking protocol, Comey didn’t give a heads-up about the interview to Yates, by then the acting attorney general. There is no evidence in the public record that Obama knew about it either, though Trump has tried to pin the blame on him.
In the FBI interview, Flynn told at least four distinct lies about the Kislyak calls, according to court filings. He pleaded guilty in December 2017 to one count of lying to the FBI, and became a marquee cooperator in the Mueller investigation. But he reversed course last year, hired aggressive new lawyers who support the “deep state” conspiracy and tried to withdraw from his guilty plea.
Trump recently seized on Obama’s meeting with Comey to promote his suspicions about the Russia investigation. He has routinely suggested that Obama-era officials should be in jail, but he would not identify which crime he believes Obama committed when he was asked by a reporter on Monday.
“You know what the crime is,” Trump replied. “The crime is very obvious to everybody.”
Allegations of political ‘unmasking’
As Trump has alluded to in recent comments, the saga is far from over.
Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, a loyal Trump ally, recently declassified a list of former Obama administration officials who had allegedly requested the “unmasking” of Flynn in classified intelligence reports where the identities of Americans are typically hidden. Trump retweeted a story from a conservative website Tuesday morning about the declassified list, which isn’t public yet.
The unmasking of officials has long been part of conservative claims that the Obama administration tried to bring down Trump. It is a routine part of how administrations handle intelligence-gathering, but some top Republicans charge that the Obama administration abused its powers in this instance and others, though the number of such requests is much higher under the Trump administration than the Obama administration.
Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee under then-Chairman Devin Nunes of California investigated the matter in 2017 and 2018, though sources from both parties told CNN that they didn’t see evidence of anything illegal or unusual by Obama officials.
It’s already known that both Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, and Samantha Power, Obama’s United Nations ambassador, used the unmasking process in their positions, according to congressional testimony from the former officials. It was not out of the ordinary for Rice and Powers, who dealt with national security, to unmask the names of Americans.
Much of their testimony about unmasking is redacted in the transcripts. But CNN reported in 2017 that Rice gave an explanation for why she had unmasked senior Trump officials during the transition: She was trying to understand why the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates was in New York in late 2016, when the UAE did not tell the Obama administration that he was coming.
CNN previously reported that the crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, was in New York to meet with several top Trump officials, including Flynn, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his top strategist at the time, Steve Bannon. Some influential House Republicans have previously said they were satisfied by Rice’s explanation as to why she had done the unmasking.
It’s not clear if or when Grenell will release the list of Obama administration officials, and it’s unknown whether the disclosure will provide any context for why the unmasking was considered necessary. If it is just a list of names, Trump could easily fill the void with speculation about his “Obamagate” theory.
This wasn’t the first time Grenell used his temporary powers over the intelligence community to give Trump a boost. Last month, he declassified footnotes from the Justice Department inspector general report that raised new questions about the veracity of the opposition research dossier compiled by retired British spy Christopher Steele.
Grassley publicly released the footnotes, giving Trump more fodder to critique the Russia probe.
Exaggerations about misconduct
Trump’s latest rhetoric about “Obamagate” matches a well-established pattern.
Some misconduct related to the Russia investigation has been uncovered, and several former FBI officials have been chided for their handling of certain aspects of the probe. But Trump has repeatedly exaggerated the breadth of the wrongdoing or latched onto unproven accusations that even some members of his own administration have struggled to publicly explain or defend.
The Justice Department’s inspector general has detailed major problems with the FBI’s use of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The inspector general also concluded that the most salacious claims about Trump and Russia, first made in the Steele dossier, had not been proved.
To Trump’s credit, he said early on that there were improprieties with FBI surveillance. But when the watchdog report came out in late 2019, many of the President’s specific claims were debunked, even if he was right about the big picture. (Much like his current messaging, Trump called this kerfuffle “Spygate,” and said in 2018 that it “could be one of the biggest political scandals in history.”)
For instance, the inspector general found that the FBI’s decision to investigate several Trump campaign associates was legally justified and unaffected by bias. Yet even after the report came out in December, the President has continued to claim that the Russia probe was illegal and biased.
Attorney General William Barr also disputes that conclusion from the inspector general, and previously ordered a review of the Russia probe, led by US Attorney John Durham. That investigation is ongoing.