The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion On Hannity’s show, Trump reveals his corrupt, panicky endgame

Vice President Pence on Oct. 7 repeated a variation of the misleading allegation the Obama administration spied on Trump's 2016 campaign. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Given President Trump’s latest antics, we should probably get more serious about reacquainting ourselves with the concept of political violence, or violence undertaken to achieve political or ideological ends, something that was more widespread in previous eras.

Trump increasingly appears unwilling to discourage the potential for political violence on his behalf — even when events are screaming at him to do so. And it’s reasonable to fear he may actively stoke outbreaks in the run-up to the election or in its aftermath.

Trump told us where this is all going on Thursday night from the safe confines of his favorite fact-free propaganda zone. He told Sean Hannity that he was pleased with Vice President Pence’s comments at the Wednesday debate on whether he’d assist a peaceful transfer of power.

“Mike Pence’s best answer was that answer last night,” Trump said.

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Let’s review that “answer.” Moderator Susan Page pointed out that Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election, then asked Pence what he would do in that situation.

Pence didn’t answer the question, refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer himself. He then aired the false claim that the Obama-Biden administration “spied” on the Trump campaign in 2016, citing new “documents” supposedly showing Hillary Clinton’s campaign concocted the claim of Russian interference.

For a good unraveling of this latest nonsense, see Glenn Kessler’s new piece. But what’s important here is the connection between this latest turn in the bogus “Obamagate” scandal and the refusal to commit to a peaceful transition.

This link is being increasingly drawn of late. Indeed, Trump himself drew it on Hannity. Just before hailing Pence’s answer on the transition question, Trump railed that the previous administration had been caught “spying on our campaign,” which he called an act of “treason.”

In short, that invented scandal is morphing into the justification for refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer as the election nears. The Trump campaign also just echoed this in a fundraising email highlighted by reporter Kyle Cheney, which shrieks that due to that fake scandal, “Biden shouldn’t be allowed to run.”

It’s a sign of how far we’ve fallen that the president of the United States can accuse his predecessor of “treason” based on pure fictions, and his campaign can suggest that his challenger’s candidacy is illegitimate, only to see it largely ignored as typical conduct on his part.

But in this case, the link to the transition question is important, because it suggests a route to serious political violence in coming weeks.

‘A volatile and potentially violent period’

This was explained very well by Frank Figliuzzi, a retired FBI official. On Thursday night, Figliuzzi told MSNBC that Trump is functioning as a kind of “instigator in chief” who is helping fuel the “radicalization” of those who are “on the fringe already.”

“Law enforcement is telling me that they are ready for a volatile and potentially violent period as we ramp up to the election and beyond,” Figliuzzi continued.

Figliuzzi noted that we already know Trump’s rhetoric may be inciting right-wing extremist violence. He pointed to the disruption of a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) for the “treason” of instituting public health measures amid a pandemic, which came after Trump tweeted a call to “LIBERATE” the state. The alleged El Paso mass shooter targeting “Mexicans” also reportedly echoed Trump’s rhetoric, Figliuzzi noted.

All this highlights an important point that calls for further reporting: What, exactly, has law enforcement concluded about the impact of Trump’s rhetoric on potential violent extremist activity around the election? Trump and his aides are obviously aware of this possibility, yet he persists. Has this been discussed internally at all?

In this context, the fake “Obamagate” scandal takes on more sinister significance.

We already know Trump and his propagandists are using fake claims of vote-by-mail fraud to court potential backlash around the election. Trump has openly telegraphed his plan to try to get millions of mail ballots invalidated while declaring that vote-by-mail cannot deliver a legitimate outcome. Donald Trump Jr. is saying the same while explicitly mobilizing supporters for a post-election struggle.

It’s now clearer that “Obamagate” could serve a similar purpose. A splashy announcement claiming new “evidence” that the Russia investigation was an Obama-Biden plot to steal the 2016 election would, in the demented right-wing disinformation ecosystem, magically become a rationale to resist the 2020 results, a call to arms.

Trump and Pence both drew this link themselves. Pence was just more subtle about it.

Trump’s corrupt scheme is falling apart

To be clear, the “Obamagate” ploy will almost certainly fail. According to Axios, Attorney General William P. Barr will likely not release a “report” on his “review” of the origins of the Russia investigation by Election Day. You just can’t find good corrupt co-conspiratorial help these days, apparently.

This is Trump’s last-ditch hope of making “Obamagate” seem real, or real enough to use as a pretext for resisting the election’s outcome. Unsurprisingly, the Associated Press reports that Trump is now “at odds” with Barr over this failure to produce what Trump had demanded.

Given the role this was supposed to play in Trump’s endgame, we can now see why. The crucial outstanding question is whether Trump will end up fomenting political violence anyway.

Read more:

George Will: Republicans, are you tired of winning yet?

Eugene Robinson: Trump’s frantic desperation will only get worse

Jennifer Rubin: Women are pummeling Trump as time is running out

Our Democracy in Peril: A series on the damage Trump has caused — and the danger he would pose in a second term

Marc A. Thiessen: Mike Pence’s debate master class

Karen Attiah: America hates to let Black women speak