WASHINGTON — What the hell is “Obamagate?”
For President Trump, it might be the best distraction he’s got available from this summer of disease, riots and economic collapse. And thankfully for him, his allies in the Senate are ginning up an opportunity for him to grasp it.
This week GOP Senators will launch a summer-long quest to locate a crime behind the ill-defined catchphrase by investigating dozens of high-level Obama officials over the origins of the Russia investigation.
The term “Obamagate” captures the fuzzy notion that former President Barack Obama somehow set out to frame Trump with the Russia probe, even though there’s no evidence that happened. Trump tweeted the word out on Mother’s Day without explanation, then insisted it was the “biggest political crime in American history.” Asked which crime he meant, Trump refused to specify. “You know what the crime is,” Trump snapped at a reporter. “The crime is very obvious to everybody.”
The whole thing is a “sideshow to distract from the shitshow,” according to David Plouffe, Obama’s former campaign manager, at a moment when the country is being torn apart. Over 100,000 Americans have died in a pandemic worsened by government bungling, unemployment has reached Great Depression-era levels, and bloody riots are turning American cities into flaming battle zones.
But the hearings represent a rare, bright glimmer of hope for Trump. They could help him rewrite the history of the Russia probe as a tale of investigators gone wild, rather than the story of how so many of his closest allies got arrested and charged with felonies. And they could dig up fresh mud for him to fling at his 2020 electoral opponent, Obama’s former vice president, Joe Biden. Wide-ranging, ill-defined investigations have a tendency to find stuff crafty politicians can turn to their advantage — even if they had no idea it was there in the beginning.
Senate Republicans are casting a very wide net in the form of dozens and dozens of subpoenas that promise endless hours of televised hearings.
First up on Wednesday: Rod Rosenstein, Trump’s former deputy attorney general, who will be grilled about his decision to appoint the chief Russia investigator, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
But Rosenstein is just the beginning.
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, will vote to approve subpoenas for documents and testimony from no fewer than 53 people including several of Trump’s least-favorite Obama-era officials, such as:
- Former FBI Director James Comey
- Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper
- Former CIA chief James Brennan
- Former FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page
- Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice
- Former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe
And many more.
The same day, Republican Senator Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, will ask his committee to approve subpoenas for 35 targets, including many of the same names.
Graham has suggested proceedings could stretch all summer, and focus on three distinct areas:
- First, the criminal case against Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn
- Next, the warrant against former Trump campaign aide, Carter Page
- Finally, the appointment of Mueller as special counsel
“My goal is to find out why and how the system got so off the rails,” Graham said.
Democrats argue the whole thing amounts to a series of glorified pro-Trump campaign events, dressed up as Senate investigations.
“Senate Republicans have become a conspiracy caucus,” Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer of New York wrote in a letter to his fellow Democrats on Friday. “They have failed the American people by turning the institutions of the Senate into an extension of the President’s re-election campaign.”
Trump may have invented a “crime” behind “Obamagate,” but the investigation could still prove politically damaging to Biden. A similar wide-ranging Congressional investigation helped undo Trump’s last opponent: Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s private email server was unearthed by the GOP-led Congressional investigation into terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Clinton was never charged with a crime for using private email for government business as Secretary of State, but Trump hammered her for looking like she had something to hide. Political statistician Nate Silver says that the FBI announcement of a new cache of emails, right before the election, “probably cost Clinton the election.”
Former House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy took credit for using the Benghazi probe to torpedo Clinton’s candidacy.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?,” McCarthy told Fox News in 2016. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”
If Trump gets lucky again, the wide-ranging Congressional investigations could dig up a new political weapon for him to use against Biden, too. Like with Clinton, the most politically important discovery might have nothing to do with the initial premise of the investigation.
Yet forcing a showdown with Obama comes with a risk for Trump — because Obama is so much more popular than he is.
Several recent polls have shown Obama’s net favorability, which is the positive rating minus the negative rating, beating Trump’s by 20 to 30 percentage points.
Trump may be in need of a new point of attack on Obama’s legacy. But picking a fight with his predecessor, during this summer of widespread discontent, might not create the kind of comparison between the Obama era and the Trump era that he’s hoping for.
Cover: President Donald Trump gestures as he walks across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Saturday, May 30, 2020, after stepping off Marine One as he returns from Kennedy Space Center for the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
This article originally appeared on VICE US.