MAY 19, 2020
President Donald Trump is a master manipulator of language — and the media. Using the digital bullhorn provided him via Twitter, Trump aggressively seeks to not only push his pet issues but also works to frame them in ways that often benefit him and elide actual facts.
His latest creation is the allegation that President Barack Obama — as well as senior officials throughout the Justice Department and intelligence worlds — was masterminding some sort of broad-scale coup attempt. Trump, as he so often does, has coined an utterly shareable name for this scandal: “Obamagate.”
Since May 10, Trump has used that word in no fewer than 18 different tweets, according to the Trump Twitter Archive. And, in virtually every interview he’s given over the last three weeks, Trump has pushed hard on the idea of some sort of corrupt enterprise.
“Thank you to @foxandfriends for covering, supremely, the greatest political scandal in the history of the United States, OBAMAGATE,” Trump tweeted on May 15. “Fake News @CNN and Concast’s own MSDNC are only trying to make their 3 year Con Job just go away. They are embarrassed and don’t know what to do….”
In an appearance on “Fox & Friends” earlier this month, Trump echoed that allegation: “They tried to take down the President of the United States, a sitting, duly elected president of the United States before I even won.”
The problem with all of this? There’s no real proof of wrongdoing by Obama.
As CNN’s Marshall Cohen and Jeremy Herb wrote recently:
“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.”
What the inspector general found wasn’t great! And it didn’t reflect well on some people — most notably former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. But the IG report also made abundantly clear that while those two had exchanged a series of text messages in which they discussed their disdain for Trump, they were not the reason the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential Trump-Russia collusion. Nor did the IG find any evidence that their personal feelings about Trump biased the investigation.
(And while we’re at it, there’s still no evidence for Trump’s claim that Obama ordered his phone in Trump Tower to be tapped during the 2016 campaign.)
On Monday, Attorney General Bill Barr, as loyal an ally as the president has in his administration, openly acknowledged that he doesn’t “expect” that there will be a criminal investigation into Obama or former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, stemming from the ongoing investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, which is led by US Attorney John Durham.
“Whatever their level of involvement based on the level of information I have today, I don’t expect Mr. Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man,” Barr acknowledged. “Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others.”
Heck, even Trump can’t really even explain what exactly Obama supposedly did wrong. “It’s been going on for a very long time,” he said in response to a reporter’s question about what specific crime he was alleging. “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody.”
All of which brings me back to the word “Obamagate,” and why the media — including me! — should stop using it as shorthand to describe any potential wrongdoing in the Russia counterintelligence investigation. Why? Because, in repeating Trump’s framing, we are turning this into something it simply isn’t. Consider:
* There is a total of ZERO evidence that Barack Obama behaving inappropriately in regard to the counterintelligence probe into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. None.
* By adding “-gate” to the former president’s name, Trump is purposely trying to associate it with “Watergate,” an actual scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
So, neither the “Obama” part nor the “gate” part of Trump’s preferred description of the 2016 Russia investigation are accurate.
Which means that by repeating the phrase, we are simply amplifying a false frame that rewards rather than punishes the President’s tendency toward exaggeration and fallacy.