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Over the past few days, President Donald Trump has taken to Twitter and repeatedly helped give credence to a rapidly evolving conspiracy theory. That theory, known as “Obamgate” and disseminated via hashtag, is an imprecisely constructed assortment of accusations against Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama.
This is not the first time Trump has helped propagate conspiracies, either directly or indirectly. Trump has been known to retweet accounts affiliated with the elaborate QAnon conspiracy theory.
Prior to becoming president, the celebrity billionaire’s successful transition into politics was partially rooted in his embrace of “birtherism,” the discredited conspiracy that Obama was born in Kenya.
Trump embraces birtherism
In the latter half of President Obama’s first term, Trump became one of Obama’s fiercest critics, using his Twitter account to lob criticism at him dozens of times in 2011. Those tweets were mostly around policy and the budget, though he also criticized Obama for golfing and taking vacations.
In interviews at the time, Trump regularly questioned whether Obama was born in America, often suggesting that the president was born in Kenya. He called into question the accuracy of Obama’s birth certificate and continually pushed the claim that Obama could not legally be president as he was foreign-born.
The belief that Obama was born in Kenya gained traction in large part because of Trump’s frequent touting of it, leading Obama to release his original long-form birth certificate in April 2011. For a brief period, this seemed like it might put the issue to rest, with even Trump saying at the time, “I hope it’s true so that we can get on to much more important matters.”
However, a tweet on November 18, 2011 proved the issue was not dead. Tweeting a since deleted article from conservative news site, The Blaze, Trump asked, “Made in America? @BarackObama called his ‘birthplace’ Hawaii “here in Asia.”
In the lead up to the 2012 election, Trump repeatedly tweeted that Obama had previously claimed to be born in Kenya. Of the birther scandal, Trump asked via Twitter, “Is this another Watergate?”
In August 2012, Trump claimed, “An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.” Trump never identified that source or put forward any evidence for the claim.
Though Trump had discussed running for president previously (considering a run as far back as 2000), amplifying the birther issue raised his profile enough to successfully earn the Republican nomination in 2016.
During the election that propelled Trump to the White House, Trump seemingly laid the issue to rest, saying “President Barack Obama was born in the United States.” However, reports have suggested that Trump has continued to push the birther conspiracy in private.
Trump was not the first to question Obama’s US citizenship. Illinois politician Andy Martin has been cited as the person who first suggested Obama was a secret Muslim. Martin made the claim back in 2004, spawning the theory that Obama was foreign-born.
Trump has erroneously claimed that Hillary Clinton, Obama’s 2008 opponent for the Democratic nomination, started the birther movement. However, there is no evidence that the Clinton campaign ever questioned Obama’s citizenship.
An internal campaign memo from a Clinton political strategist, Mark Penn, did recommend emphasizing Obama’s limited “roots to basic American values and culture,” but Clinton reportedly rejected the advice.
Retweeting Obamagate into the mainstream
On May 10, Trump officially gave Obamagate his seal of approval with multiple tweets and retweets related to the conspiracy theory. Since Sunday, Trump has twice tweeted that “OBAMAGATE makes Watergate look small time!” (Trump also previously called the Benghazi scandal “bigger than Watergate.”)
Trump’s Obamagate tweets have rapidly turned a fringe Twitter conspiracy theory into a mainstream talking point.
The Obamagate conspiracy theory has many tendrils, but the basic claim is that Obama, along with members of his administration and the media, illegally spied on and persecuted members of Trump’s campaign and administration, including Michael Flynn.
Some versions of the conspiracy theory even allege that Obama and the Democratic Party are attempting a coup. As of now, there is paltry evidence for these claims.
Obamagate opens the gate to QAnon
Many of the Twitter accounts pushing Obamagate also regularly share QAnon-related posts. For a conspiracy theory as omnivorous as QAnon, Obamagate is just another piece in the broader puzzle.
On Sunday, amid his tweeting about Obamagate, Trump amplified multiple accounts that have promoted QAnon. At one point, Trump responded “Thank you!” in a retweet of @LionelMedia. That user’s tweet, from November 1, 2019, featured a video of a Trump-branded flag beneath an American flag, flapping in the wind. It read, “Retweet if you stand with @realDonaldTrump!”
Trump often retweets messages of support from fan accounts, though it’s unclear why or how Trump noticed that specific months-old tweet. @LionelMedia had tweeted about Obamagate on Sunday, but he has also frequently tweeted QAnon material.
As @DecoherenceWave pointed out on May 10, @LionelMedia has a habit of spreading other conspiracy theories. Among them are the belief that fluoridated water is poisonous and vaccines are used to implant trackers.
Trump seemingly validates QAnon
Whether it is Trump’s intention to give credence to QAnon remains unknown. However, QAnon adherents view his tweets and actions as validation of their beliefs.
On May 12, the user @CARRIE4TRUTH, a Q follower who has nearly 25,000 followers, tweeted, “Trump would never risk his credibility. If he is using the word 0bamagate [sic]…You can bet it’s a done deal. He is not only fully confident 0bama [sic] will be charged with treasonous acts to our country, he is giving us his word.”
Business Insider noted in December 2019 that Trump has amplified QAnon previously, including spreading a tweet with the #WWG1WGA hashtag. WWG1WGA is a QAnon-specific acronym that stands for “Where we go one, we go all.”
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