Barack Obama meets Donald Trump during transition planning at the White House in November 2016 (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

May 27, 2020   6 mins

With his re-election prospects precarious, Donald Trump and his Republican allies appear to see a short-term advantage in reviving “Russiagate” — the colloquial term for the multifaceted, years-long narrative centred on the allegation that Trump was guilty of conspiring or “colluding” with the Kremlin. Of course, no such conspiracy or “collusion” ever existed, as confirmed last year by the findings of Robert Mueller — the Special Counsel appointed to comprehensively investigate the allegation — but also by basic common sense, which is a commodity frequently lacking in US political and media circles.

Far from settling the issue, though, Mueller’s findings merely represented the culmination of just one phase in the interminable Russiagate journey. Now, Trump has apparently endeavoured to rebrand the “scandal” instead as “Obamagate” — so as to almost invert its contours, and depict the true “scandal” as always having been principally about shameful malfeasance on the part of Obama-era security state officials.

The hope, presumably, is that this will tarnish the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, by association. Whether or not the tactic is actually in Trump’s best political interests is questionable, as it seems doubtful that anyone but the most plugged-in partisans and hobbyists are invested enough in the intricate, often confusing details to even know what he’s talking about. Nonetheless, Trump’s complaints — while characteristically over-simplified and bombastic — do have some substantive merit.

To understand why, one must turn back the clock a bit. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s shocking victory in 2016, huge portions of the left-liberal US political and media class collectively decided that the executive branch of the federal government — soon to be headed by someone they regarded as unthinkably grotesque — had lost all legitimacy.

In desperation, they vested their hopes in unelected members of the executive branch, namely the national security bureaucracy, to constrain or even overthrow Trump — because they saw him not just as a demented fascist madman, but as an active conspirator with a hostile foreign nation in Russia. Josh Marshall, the publisher of the liberal blog Talking Points Memo, encapsulated this mentality when he wrote in November 2016: “Let’s hope there’s a deep state, and if there is that they have their shit together.”

It was in this frenzied climate that the upper echelons of the security state apparatus, buoyed by the eager assent and even conscious participation of the elite media, seized the power to launch unprecedented encroachments into domestic political affairs. By now, many of these astonishing encroachments have been well-documented.

One of the most egregious is the spellbinding saga of Carter Page, a middling “adviser” with only the most tangential connection to Trump, who nonetheless found himself subjected to massively invasive state surveillance on the basis of the so-called “Steele Dossier” — the infamous collection of preposterous rumours and gossip alleging vast conspiratorial collaboration between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

Page’s ordeal is just one example of many. As progressively more information trickles out about how these absurd security state machinations took shape in the hysterical days of 2016 and 2017, by way of newly revealed court filings and Congressional transcripts, Trump is being granted more ammunition to batter his Democratic opponents with, simply because those machinations were so patently ill-founded. Hence the logic of the “Obamagate” rebranding effort.

Armed with the fact that no conspiracy took place, Trump can justifiably claim to have been targeted for unwarranted punishment by members of the previous administration. And the latest developments bolstering Trump’s case involve new information relating to his beleaguered former National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn, who was forced out of office in February 2017.

Flynn’s great crime was to take part in phone conversations with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during the presidential transition period in December 2016, and urge him not to overreact to punitive measures imposed by the outgoing Obama administration. That’s it. That’s the affront that impelled high-ranking FBI officials to conduct an entrapment-style interview with Flynn in the White House, which resulted in him telling them a purported “lie” about his innocuous conversations with Kislyak, which then created enough political pressure for Trump to capitulate and fire Flynn. That this should be the action that resulted in his firing is doubly ironic, given Flynn’s predilections toward extreme hawkishness in other foreign policy domains. Because in this rare instance, he was actually seeking to ameliorate tensions — with a nuclear-armed power, no less.

Eventually Flynn pleaded guilty to “making a false statement” to the FBI, even though just-released documents show that the FBI officials who conducted his interview “had the impression at the time that he was not lying”. While there is still some ambiguity as to the exact chronology around if and when these security state officials had caused Flynn’s identity to be “unmasked” — a concept heavily promoted by Trump and the Republican commentariat — there is no doubt that Flynn became the object of bizarrely vigorous federal law enforcement attention during late 2016 / early 2017, on grounds that increasingly appear fraudulent. Underscoring the absurdity of the affair, FBI officials even eagerly conjured up a half-baked theory that Flynn may have violated the Logan Act — a comically obsolete statute enacted in 1799 under the administration of President John Adams — in order to justify their wild goose chase.

Flynn’s eventual sacking as a result of this FBI-manufactured controversy — aided by strategic leaks to the Washington Post — marked a turning point in the development of the early portion of the “Russian collusion” narrative that would subsequently engulf Trump’s first several years in office. Now there was tangible proof that such manufactured controversies could tangibly impede Trump’s ability to govern. Trump himself was evidently oblivious to this dynamic, as an anecdote relayed in Volume II of the Mueller Report illustrates:

On February 14, 2017, the day after Flynn’s resignation, the President had lunch at the White House with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. According to Christie, at one point during the lunch the President said, “Now that we fired Flynn, the Russia thing is over.” Christie laughed and responded, “No way.”

The anecdote portrays Trump as clueless that Flynn’s forced departure had signalled only the beginning of the unfurling political hysteria caused by the “Russia issue” (its exact contours seldom well-defined in the press, Congress, or really by anyone.) Indeed, the “issue” escalated dramatically over the next several months, with the Special Counsel investigation headed by Mueller initiated in May 2017.

Trump’s seemingly blasé attitude at the time was informed by his belief that there was no Russia conspiracy to be uncovered, therefore there was nothing for him to worry about. He did not sufficiently appreciate the extent to which security state officials (as well as the opposition party and much of the media) would pull out all the stops to generate the impression of a conspiracy, by furiously hyping every incremental “bombshell” development, none of which actually pointed to a conspiracy but did create a general sense of sinister wrongdoing — accompanied by breathless speculation that the next domino was ready to fall at any moment.

But as we now all know, and as should have been obvious all along, there were no more dominoes. Over a year after Mueller’s final Report, though, there still has been no serious reckoning with what really happened. Recognising that Trump’s recurrent complaints about the matter are correct has long been essentially impossible for most Democrats, liberals, and leftists. Conceding that Trump could be right about anything, or even that his grievances contain the smallest kernel of truth, is widely seen in these quarters as tantamount to endorsing fascism, Nazism, the Kremlin, or some terrifying combination thereof. “Obamagate” is Trump’s attempt to force just such a reckoning — one that is indeed long overdue.

However, Trump does not necessarily aid the process of coming to an accurate collective understanding of “Russiagate” by describing it as “Obamagate”. This imputes an excessively partisan motivation to the security state officials who manufactured the drama.

Figures such as the former Director of the FBI, James Comey, the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, the Deputy Director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, and the former Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein — all of whom connived to one degree or another against Trump — could not be reasonably said to have acted on the basis of pure partisan animus. Comey and Brennan, for instance, were initially appointed to high-profile positions by George W. Bush. Rosenstein, a Republican, was himself appointed by Trump. What united them was not partisanship per se, but their immersion in the peculiarly bipartisan ideology of the American national security state.

Trump wasn’t viewed with such frantic alarmism by these figures simply because he was a Republican. Rather, they viewed Trump — incorrectly, for the most part — as an agent of subversion. And so the term “Obamagate”, with its tedious invocation of the legacy of Watergate, obscures the real culprit of this fiasco: the myopic and irrational pathologies of the American security state, which continue under Trump unabated.

Michael Tracey is a journalist in Jersey City, NJ