On Sunday, May 10, President Donald Trump tweeted an all-caps Happy Mother’s Day message. A few hours later, he tweeted a completely different all-caps message: “OBAMAGATE!”
Since then, Trump has used his Twitter account to push the narrative that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, had committed “The biggest political crime in American history.”
On Monday, when asked directly about those crimes, Trump remained vague and provided no details of what Obama and his administration allegedly did. Nonetheless, right-wing commentators on Fox News and other media outlets have treated the idea of Obama and his administration committing crimes as a given.
The specifics of those crimes and their alleged purpose is harder to determine.
#Spygate becomes #Obamagate
Prior to Trump’s Sunday tweets, the #Obamagate hashtag had been spreading with the help of prominent right-wing polemists and anonymous Twitter accounts with suspiciously high follower counts.
Prior to May 1, the hashtag had gained little traction online. Then, on May 1, Sebastian Gorka tweeted a video he called “one of the most comprehensive summaries of the #Obamagate scandal.” Gorka, a former Deputy Assistant in Trump’s administration and a vocal defender of the president, has more than 900,000 Twitter followers.
The now-removed video, entitled “Spygate,” featured another prominent Trump supporter, radio show host Dan Bongino, discussing Obama’s alleged attempts to spy on Trump. (The “-gate” suffix is used to denote a scandal in American politics and goes back to the 1970s Watergate scandal of President Richard Nixon.)
The alleged “Obamagate” scandal is an updated moniker for what Trump and his supporters originally called “Spygate.” That theory claimed that the Obama administration illegally spied on the Trump campaign. Trump coined the term during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which sought to learn if the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.
At that time, members of Trump’s campaign had been under surveillance by the FBI in relation to possible Russian collusion. The Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General’s review of that FBI investigation, released in December 2019, found that officials had made “basic and fundamental errors” during the investigation, but that none of those errors were a result of political bias.
Obamagate appears to push the narrative of Spygate even further by tying in other conspiracies that have grown in the Trump ecosystem for years. These include the Ukrainian scandal at the heart of Trump’s impeachment that alleges that Obama’s Vice President, Joe Biden, used his position to enrich his son, Hunter Biden.
Much of the momentum behind the Obamagate conspiracy theory appears to have been provided by bots designed to spread the hashtag. For instance, @GermanyTrump, an account created in October 2018 that has nearly 4,000 followers, has repeatedly tweeted the hashtag since Sunday. Before that, the account solely tweeted or retweeted in support of the president.
What is Obamagate?
With his “OBAMAGATE!” tweet on Sunday, Trump gave credence to the latest conspiracy theory about Obama’s alleged criminal activity. He spent much of Sunday and Monday retweeting critical comments about Obama. In one retweet that alleged Obama officials sought to sabotage the Trump administration, Trump wrote, “The biggest political crime in American history, by far!”
On Monday, May 11, Trump again tweeted “OBAMAGATE!” with a video of Fox News host Tucker Carlson discussing the outgoing Obama administration by claiming, “The president of the United States turned to the head of the FBI [James Comey], the most powerful law enforcement official in America, and said ‘continue to secretly investigate my chief political rival so that I can act against him.’”
When asked directly about Obama’s alleged crimes during a press briefing on Monday, Trump seemed unable or unwilling to detail those crimes. Responding to Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, Trump stated, “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”
One concrete detail involves Michael Flynn, the former Trump administration official who was formerly charged with lying to the FBI about his involvement with foreign entities. On May 7, the DOJ dropped charges against Flynn, citing evidence that suggested the FBI had entrapped him to get his confession. Conservatives allege that Flynn was unfairly targeted by the Obama administration.
That appears to be only one part of “Obamagate,” which has been latched onto not only by political conservatives, but by followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
On Monday, Trump retweeted Twitter user @Pipes2494, connecting Obamagate to the belief that the media is “rigged” for the Democrats. @Pipes2494 has repeatedly tweeted QAnon related hashtags and content, along with effusive support of Trump.
Even One American News Network (OANN), Trump’s “favorite news network,” seemed uncertain on the specifics of Obamagate. An article on Monday reported that the scandal was related to a phone call in which Obama is critical of Trump and vows support for Biden in the 2020 election. The article did not mention Flynn or the FBI.
Trump and Obama’s relationship
The lack of specificity makes it nearly impossible to prove or debunk the Obamagate conspiracy theory, though some attempts to decode it have rested on animosity between Trump and Obama.
Some commentators have connected Trump’s latest conspiracy theory to Obama’s recent criticism of Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which Obama called an “absolute chaotic disaster.”
Trump tweeted on Sunday that his response was better than the Obama administration’s response to H1N1, commonly known as “Swine Flu.” There were just over 12,000 total American deaths related to the H1N1 outbreak.
On Monday, after the #TrumpsJealousOfObama hashtag began spreading on Twitter, Trump retweeted a user who claimed “Barack Hussain Obama is the first Ex-President to ever speak against his successor, which was long tradition of decorum and decency. [sic]” Trump added, “He got caught, OBAMAGATE!”
Just a distraction?
Multiple publications have suggested that this latest conspiracy is meant to take the focus away from the current health crisis, with The Guardian noting that critics have called it a distraction from Trump’s “confused and faltering response to the pandemic.”
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