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Trump peddles 'Obamagate,' struggles to explain what it is

Trump believes Barack Obama committed the biggest political crime in the history of the United States. He just can't figure out what it is.
Image: Barack Obama
President Barack Obama waves to reporters after returning to the White House on Sept. 3, 2015.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

It was at roughly this point two years ago when Donald Trump came up with a one-word conspiracy theory he seemed quite excited about: "Spygate." It was never altogether clear what exactly the president was talking about, but the Republican had apparently convinced himself that federal law enforcement had put a spy in his campaign operation as part of some kind of nefarious scheme that only he understood.

The whole thing was painfully foolish, even by Trump standards, and even many congressional Republicans said they wanted nothing to do with it. Before long, the nonsense faded away.

It's against this backdrop that the current dynamic, two years later, seems oddly familiar.

The president has spent the last few days tweeting hysterically about something he calls "Obamagate," which Trump seems quite excited about. He's called his new conspiracy theory, among other things, the "biggest political crime in American history, by far!"

At a White House press conference yesterday, the president was asked to explain what in the world "Obamagate" is. Trump replied:

"'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 of 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."

Those were certainly a lot of words, none of which brought any clarity to the matter. Asked again what crime he believes Barack Obama committed, Trump added, "You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody."

Yes, Donald Trump believes he's uncovered the biggest political crime in the history of the United States, a scandal so severe that it makes Watergate "look small time" by comparison, but when given an opportunity to tell the nation what in the world he's talking about, the hapless president apparently couldn't think of anything to say.

Trump is certain that Obama has committed obvious crimes -- none of which he can identify.

As best as I can tell, the president seems to be referring to the investigation into former unregistered foreign agent Michael Flynn, his secret communications with Russia during the presidential transition process, and Flynn's documented lies to federal law enforcement ahead of joining Trump's White House team as national security advisor.

This, in Trump's mind, should be seen as some kind of Obama scandal -- which, like "Spygate," congressional Republicans want nothing to do with.

And why, pray tell, is the president peddling this nonsense during a deadly pandemic? His unhealthy obsession with his predecessor is certainly part of the problem. It's also likely that this is part of a 2020 electoral strategy: Trump is running against Obama's former vice president, so he has an added incentive to try to smear the former Democratic administration. It doesn't hurt that the White House sees Flynn and his case as some weird motivating factor for far-right activists.

But pay particular attention to this assessment from the Washington Post's Michael Gerson, a former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush: "It is always difficult to determine how much of President Trump's daily communication results from compulsion and how much results from calculation. But it has been Trump's unique genius to turn the appearance of mental breakdown into effective political maneuvering. And we are seeing his approach take shape: a strategy of distraction to obscure a policy of abdication."

Quite right. Trump is failing spectacularly during the greatest and most important crisis of his tenure. Rather than governing, he reflexively turns to comforting distractions.

Those looking for actual scandals would be wise to ignore "Obamagate" nonsense and notice instead the lost president who keeps proving his ineptitude.