What Obamagate is, in fact, is a series of allegations ranging from ludicrous to plausible. Shortly into his tenure, Trump tweeted that Barack Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ ” in the fall. The years that have followed have been a frantic and fabulous romp through the right-wing fever swamps in search of evidence that doesn’t exist — or, as a fallback, hints of lesser nefarity from a previous administration determined to hamstring its successors.
This story of lesser nefarity includes the focus of today’s conservative obsession: Michael Flynn. The theory at its most coherent goes something like this: High-level Obama officials asked that the former national security adviser’s name be “unmasked” in intelligence reports. Those Obama officials purportedly used this knowledge as an excuse to “set up” Flynn to lie to the FBI — so that his lies could be leveraged in turn to coerce his cooperation in the broader investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign. Never mind that unmasking isn’t unusual, and never mind that Flynn could have avoided ensnarement simply by … not lying to the FBI.
Here’s the catch, though: The moment you refute the tinfoil-hatted crusaders by explaining what unmasking really is, or by noting that a lie is a lie is a lie, Obamagate mutates into some other allegation or theory entirely. This is what it was born to do — it’s right there in the name.
The “gate” suffix has long been an all-purpose substitution not only for genuine scandal but also for mere mishap, and everything in between. Watergate has spawned monikers for imbroglios from sports’ Deflategate and entertainment’s Nipplegate to politics’ Bridgegate and Weinergate. Republicans matched recent years’ Russiagate with Pizzagate and Spygate, which is either a precursor to or component of Obamagate, depending on how you slice it.
The “Obama” part of Obamagate is similarly vast, because the 44th president stands for so many things to so many people. If you buy the racist birtherism lie, you can timestamp the starting point of this conspiracy as the moment long ago when a foreigner masquerading as the junior senator from Illinois concocted a scheme to propel himself into the Oval Office and destroy America from within. If your head’s screwed on somewhat straighter, you can home in on the corruptions of a technocratic elite that resents the everyday folks who carried a reality television star to victory — and is now determined to deny their chosen leader his due.
Obamagate is a choose-your-own-adventure extravaganza. Your picks depend on where you live in our dizzying universe of YouTube streams and Web forums and radio shows. The wacky Q disciples who while away afternoons following clues to nowhere can weave the latest rantings on “Fox & Friends” into their mythology of “white hats” and breadcrumbs. Unmasking isn’t even wild enough for them, and wiretapping isn’t, either, so they’ll throw this scandal into their rabbit hole and see what it becomes in Wonderland.
The more establishment-oriented have the opposite problem: Obamagate in its most popular form today doesn’t make sense. The solution to that is to ignore the nutty in favor of the nuanced. See, for example, conservative commentator Andrew McCarthy’s close reading of a recently declassified email from Susan Rice. He doesn’t exactly cast the memo as confirmation of an overarching leftist plot like some of his kookier ideological allies; instead, he crafts a more complicated argument about political operatives trying to blame James B. Comey for their own questionable decisions.
Or maybe forget nuance and just go for vagueness instead: Something bad happened, and it could have involved Joe Biden, and Attorney General Bill Barr has commissioned John Durham to take a look at it, and all will be revealed — but who knows whether before or after the election?
Obamagate is a shape-shifter, and its changeling nature makes it devilish to defeat. Those who know it’s imaginary must deny everything or they risk confirming something. Should the theory’s proponents dig up even an inkling of actual wrongdoing, the Obamagate deniers will be trapped in accusations of a coverup. And those accusations will then lend new life to the whole murky scheme. Whatever that even is.
The crime, in the end, isn’t very obvious to anybody. President Trump would probably like to keep it that way.
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