WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — The Justice Department's decision to drop criminal charges against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn came at an opportune time for President Donald Trump, who has shifted focus to what he has termed "Obamagate."
Over the weekend and through Monday, Trump sent out well over 100 tweets and retweets many of them accusing top officials in the Obama administration of improperly targeting of his administration through the Russia investigation, including the former president and vice president.
"The biggest political crime in American history, by far!" Trump tweeted. "OBAMAGATE makes Watergate look small time!"
The attack came as former President Barack Obama warned that under Trump, "the rule of law was at risk." Obama was referring to the Flynn case dismissal in a call with administration alumni, according to Yahoo News. In the call, Obama, who has largely stayed on the sidelines of the 2020 campaign, urged his former colleagues to throw their weight behind Biden.
Trump's timing has led many to accuse him of trying to distract from the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed 80,000 American lives and left more unemployed than the Great Depression. But highlighting the alleged abuses by the Obama administration as well as former heads of the Justice Department and FBI is a winner, politically, among Trump's base.
"Nothing energizes Trump's base more than this because they feel that they were wronged," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell, "Where that weighs in for 2020 is simple. The presidential candidate whose voters are more energized going into the polls has won the presidency in the last eight elections."
Since the Justice Department withdrew charges against Flynn, Trump and members of his campaign have been aggressively tarring the former president with the so-called "Obamagate" scandal while implicating the presumptive 2020 Democratic candidate, former Vice President Biden.
Responding to a headline that asked, "Why Did Obama Tell The FBI To Hide Its Activities From Trump?" Trump tweeted that Biden "led the charge" in targeting the incoming administration.
The article cited recently declassified documents showing that Biden was involved in a Jan. 5, 2017 Oval Office meeting where he, Obama and National Security Advisor Susan Rice were briefed by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper about Russian election interference.
In notes from that meeting, Rice indicated that Obama questioned whether information about Russia could be shared with members of the Trump administration. "President Obama said he wants to be sure that, as we engage with the incoming team, we are mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia," Rice wrote.
The contents of Trump's weekend tweetstorm were largely dismissed in the media as a "conspiracy" or "distraction bait." The perception was different among Trump supporters who seized on a barrage of developments around what the president has repeatedly denigrated as a "hoax" and "witch hunt."
In the past week, documents were released purporting to show an FBI frameup of Flynn prompting the Justice Department to drop his perjury case. Congress released transcripts of Obama officials testifying that they were unaware of Trump-Russia coordination. And at the White House, President Trump suggested "a big price is going to be paid" by his political enemies in the previous administration.
In an interview with Fox News Monday, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh suggested that Biden was involved in the "set-up" of the incoming Trump administration.
"The question really is — to paraphrase something from way back in American history — what did Joe Biden know and when did know it?" Murtaugh asked, referring to the question asked of President Richard Nixon during Watergate.
OBAMAGATE A 'DEFLECT AND REDIRECT MANUEVER'
Polls suggest that Trump is facing an uphill battle in 2020. The majority of Americans disapprove of Trump's handling of the coronavirus. The pandemic, response and economic fallout have led to a drop in Trump's approval ratings.
In one nationwide poll, Biden was ahead of Trump by a 9-point margin. Biden also polls ahead in key battleground races and now has the full endorsement of former President Obama, who enjoys a 95% approval rating among Democrats.
Under the circumstances, some have argued that Trump is trying to distract from his grim electoral prospects.
"Trump's recent tweets embody nothing more than an attempted deflect and redirect maneuver," said Dr. Donathan Brown of the Rochester Institute of Technology. "Deflecting attention away from ongoing criticism related to his many false statements on COVID-19, and redirecting it toward his political foes."
Biden has not responded publicly to Trump's "Obamagate" allegations or the implication that he was involved in the Russia investigation. Sinclair Broadcast Group reached out to the campaign on the matter and has not received a response. Other news outlets reported a similar lack of response.
Avoiding the issue puts Biden in a position where he's not giving the accusation any credence. It also puts President Trump in a position where he can try to define his Democratic opponent without any pushback.
According to O'Connell, Trump's "Obamagate" offensive is "a net-plus and potentially a gamechanger" in terms of Trump's efforts to define Biden.
"Biden has pinned his whole campaign around Obama and this is something that has the potential to be a major black eye for Obama's legacy," O'Connell said.
TRUMP ALLIES PREPARE TO RELEASE MORE DAMAGING INFO
Trump and his allies appear poised to let out a continuous stream of potentially damaging information about the previous administration following years of investigations into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe.
In recent weeks, while much of the country focused on the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump's allies have released a deluge of documents they are using to claim that the Obama administration and former top figures in the FBI and DOJ were trying to undermine the Trump presidency.
Last week, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham released a Justice Department memo regarding the scope of Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation into Trump and Russia. According to Graham, the memo showed that "the legal foundation to justify Mueller's appointment in my view does not exist."
Graham, a Trump ally and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has released several rounds of documents calling into question the legitimacy of the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign and will continue to release documents in the coming weeks and months.
In the House, members of the Intelligence Committee released a long-awaited trove of transcripts from 57 interviews it conducted during its investigation of alleged coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The president and his Republican allies seized on the interviews with several top Obama officials, including Susan Rice, Sally Yates and former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe who publicly claimed that Trump and members of his campaign had coordinated with Russia. In closed-door testimony, those officials admitted to lawmakers that he had no "direct empirical evidence" of Trump-Russia collusion, in the words of James Clapper. Many saw "anecdotal" evidence or patterns that were concerning.
Over the weekend, the president also tweeted a story alleging a lawsuit involving Christopher Steele demonstrated that the Obama White House was aware of efforts to dig up dirt on the incoming Trump administration. Steele is a former British spy whose factually dubious dossier on Trump's Russia connections was used by the U.S. intelligence community to get a surveillance warrant on Trump campaign associates.
The most significant investigation is underway by John Durham, a Connecticut prosecutor who was appointed by Attorney General William Barr last year to review the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation. The report will scrutinize media leaks and potential political bias involved in the investigation. According to Barr, the final report could be released in the summer.
Some of the reporting around "Obamagate" involves questionable evidence and connections that largely assume the Obama administration was intentionally targeting the incoming administration based on political and ideological reasons.
Lee Pierce, a professor of rhetoric at the State University of New York College at Geneseo argued that Trump's accusation that the Obama administration sabotaged his presidency are "entirely a conspiracy theory."
Pierce continued, "That is precisely why it works as a campaign strategy." Conspiracy theories generally work because the absence of evidence is taken as evidence the conspiracy is true, she explained.
"[C]onspiracies are excellent fodder for Trump, internet culture, and an isolated electorate," Pierce said. "And, unfortunately, the more that Democrats try and go after Trump without beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt evidence, the more they set Trump up to win in November on a conspiracy theory ballot."
Multiple reports by intelligence agencies, congressional investigators and a special counsel determined that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help Trump get elected. None of the investigations were able to show that Trump or his associates coordinated directly with the Russians to achieve that outcome.