Joshua A. Geltzer
We’ve finally learned what President Trump means by “Obamagate.” Except it’s nothing President Barack Obama did — it’s what Trump is doing right now. While Trump falsely accuses Obama of having abused government power to skew an election four years ago, that’s exactly what Trump himself is doing now.
Trailing badly in the polls, Trump is pressuring more aggressively and more explicitly his attorney general, secretary of state and other Cabinet members to abuse executive branch authority to boost his electoral chances. Call it “Trumpgate” — but unlike Obamagate, it’s all too real. Ultimately, it’s a race by Trump to abuse governmental authority quickly enough to entrench his power before voters can take it away from him.
Trump has never really explained what he means by Obamagate, but that hasn’t stopped him from railing against it. In Trump’s cryptic words: “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.” Whatever Obamagate is supposed to be mean, this much seems clear: It stands for Trump’s claim that Obama and his administration somehow tried to abuse presidential authority to skew the 2016 election to hurt Trump and help Hillary Clinton. To make that claim, Trump and his supporters have taken a few baseless allegations against Obama — that he had Trump’s “wires tapped,” “spied on” his campaign, worked “to entrap” Trump campaign officials and so on — and labeled it all Obamagate.
Trump’s grievances against Obama have been thoroughly debunked. But at last, we actually know what Trump has had in mind all along — because he’s now engaging in the very abuse of presidential power to skew an election of which he has long accused Obama.
Start with the Justice Department. Trump has relied on Attorney General William P. Barr to turn what should be the federal government’s least political department into its most viciously political one. That began with Barr’s introduction of a different brand of justice for such Trump associates as Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser whose charges Barr abruptly ordered dropped, and Roger Stone, the Trump confidant whose sentencing recommendation Barr demanded to be reduced. But now Trump’s politicization of the Justice Department has become pointed specifically toward supporting his reelection. Desperate to bolster Trump’s discredited claims that mail-in voting is rife with fraud, the department recently issued a bizarre news release announcing a mere investigation into nine discarded mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania, and even more bizarrely specifying that they’d mostly been marked with votes for Trump. And Trump’s big hope for an October surprise had been Barr’s politically driven pet project: the John Durham-led investigation into the origins of the 2016 Russia investigation. In recent days, Trump has gone so far as to state publicly that he’ll be disappointed if that effort fails to indict Democrats like Obama and even Trump’s challenger, former vice president Joe Biden. It’s hard to imagine a more blatant abuse of executive authority than to demand criminal charges against a political opponent ahead of Election Day — and indeed, that’s precisely the type of election-skewing abuse of power of which Trump has long accused Obama, except now it’s real.
But Trump hasn’t stopped at the Justice Department, especially with reports that the Durham investigation won’t yield new charges before Nov. 3. He’s now set his sights on the State Department, too, where a pliant Secretary Mike Pompeo yielded to Trump’s public criticism by announcing an upcoming release of additional Clinton emails. Just as Trump couldn’t have been clearer about why he’s upset with Pompeo — asked about the Clinton emails not yet released by the secretary of state, Trump replied, “I’m not happy about him for that reason” — Pompeo couldn’t have been clearer about why, all of a sudden, he’s pledging a rushed release of emails that the State Department hasn’t deemed fit to release despite years of consideration: “I certainly think there’ll be more to see before the election,” Pompeo promised. At the State Department, just as at the Justice Department, Trump has engineered an active, open, explicit push to wield the powers of the executive branch to skew the presidential election. Trump has found a way to do in 2020 the very thing he’s long been telling a story about Obama doing in 2016.
Trump hasn’t limited his abuse of authority for electoral benefit to those departments, either. At the Department of Homeland Security, Trump’s acting secretary, Chad Wolf, has relentlessly overstated and mischaracterized the nature of protests in Portland to justify deploying federal law enforcement and thus boost Trump’s campaign narrative of a widespread violence that he hopes will yield large voter turnout from his supporters. As former Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway captured Trump’s campaign strategy: “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.” DHS has, at Trump’s direction, helped Trump to conjure that sense of chaos and violence. At the Defense Department, both the defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff indulged Trump’s horrifying use of tear gas and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square to facilitate Trump’s photo opportunity in front of a church across the park from the White House. The list goes on.
So, finally, we know what Trump had in mind with the term “Obamagate”: the anti-democratic use of governmental authority to skew America’s democratic elections. It’s something any normal administration — Obama’s or any other — would abhor. But it’s Trump’s last gasp at winning reelection. And if the polls are right, it won’t work — and we’ll have taken the critical first step to restoring the democratic norms Trump has worked so relentlessly to batter.
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