The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s strategy: First, dismantle Mueller. Then peddle ‘Obamagate.’

President Trump after signing an Armed Forces Day proclamation at the White House on Friday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

President Trump wants to wipe away the stain of Russian interference on his behalf in the 2016 election. There are two tracks in this effort: one that reached its culmination in the past week, the other percolating for years but weaponized recently by Trump himself.

Think of the first as “The Great Undoing,” the effort to unravel the work of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The second can be best described as “Lock Her Up 2,” a cynical plan to deploy rhetoric that is as overheated as it is unspecific — “OBAMAGATE!” — in the service of tarnishing the opposition.

The Great Undoing has been long in the making. The president has seethed since the moment his first attorney general recused himself from the Russia inquiry and then-Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed a special counsel to oversee the investigation.

The entire point of naming a special counsel is that it would undermine public confidence in the impartiality of the outcome if the ordinary leadership of the Justice Department ran the investigation. Therefore, bringing in an outside party would be in “the public interest,” as the regulation explains.

But, of course, Trump has no conception of the public interest, only of his own interest. He cannot fathom — and he earned himself an obstruction-of-justice investigation as a consequence — that the department is supposed to operate independently of the White House, or that the attorney general is not, in fact, intended to function as his own personal Roy Cohn.

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So Trump’s goal, from the start, has been to dismantle as much of Mueller’s work as he can — and he finally found his Cohn in the person of William P. Barr. Perhaps Barr is motivated as much by ideology — specifically, by his expansive view of the unitary executive and the view that prosecutorial decision should be within the president’s sole control — as he is by personal loyalty to Trump. The outcome is the same either way.

Media analyst Erik Wemple blasts critics who say journalists fueled a witch hunt against President Trump. (Video: Joshua Carroll, Kate Woodsome, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

And so we have seen:

● Barr both misstating the findings of the Mueller report and effectively usurping the role of the special counsel by preemptively proclaiming that “the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” (Mueller reached no such conclusion.)

● Barr disputing the finding by the Justice Department’s inspector general that the Russia investigation had a proper basis and was not motivated by anti-Trump animus.

● Barr dispatching U.S. Attorney John Durham to look into the origins of the Russia probe — and, even before Durham’s report is in — declaring that “what happened to [Trump] was one of the greatest travesties in American history” — an investigation started “without any basis” and, once Trump took office, “a whole pattern of events . . . to sabotage the presidency — or at least have the effect of sabotaging the presidency.”

● Barr intervening in the sentencing of Trump ally Roger Stone to override the recommendations of career prosecutors, who worked under Mueller’s direction until he closed up shop.

● And, now, Barr moving to undo the Michael Flynn guilty plea. Once again, if Mueller were still in place as special counsel, this would not have happened. Barr is, case by case and comment by comment, dismantling and denigrating Mueller’s work.

The next step in the enterprise is equating Trump’s behavior and the criminal conduct of those around him with that of his opponents, on the theory that if you fling enough mud at the other side, it will obscure and distract from the muck covering you.

This worked, or at least helped, during the 2016 campaign, with Flynn, appropriately enough, leading the “lock her up” chants about Hillary Clinton at the Republican convention.

Now, Trump and company want to lock up the rest of the supposedly corrupt bunch — Obama! Biden! — for unspecified, likely because they are unspecifiable, crimes.

Trump’s Monday exchange with my colleague Philip Rucker seeking an explanation of a tweet that accused former president Barack Obama of “the biggest political crime in American history” was enlighteningly unenlightening. “What is the crime exactly that you’re accusing him of?” Rucker asked. “You know what the crime is,” Trump replied. “The crime is very obvious to everybody.”

It’s not, but no matter. By Thursday, Trump was upping the ante, demanding that Obama be hauled before Congress. “The first person I would call to testify about the biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA, by FAR, is former President Obama,” Trump tweeted. “He knew EVERYTHING.”

Yelling “Obamagate!” in the overheated theater of the presidential election serves, or so Trump hopes, both to justify Barr’s intervention in the Russia probe cases and to distract voters from his disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic.

How fitting, then, that the new centerpiece of the alleged scandal is what’s known as “unmasking” — not the president’s juvenile refusal to wear one, but the request by a number of Obama administration officials to intelligence agencies to reveal Flynn as an unnamed person in intelligence intercepts.

There’s no evidence this was improper. Barr claims that agents who questioned Flynn at the White House about his pre-inauguration conversations with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak acted for “the express purpose of trying to catch, lay a perjury trap for General Flynn.” Flynn had lied to White House officials, including Vice President Pence, about the conversations. Given the evidence of Russian attempts to help Trump win, given the compromising position in which Flynn’s lies left him, it would have been reckless for the FBI not to follow up.

But this is not about government misconduct. It’s about inflaming the base and muddying the waters. It’s about discrediting Obama as he assumes a newly prominent role in the 2020 campaign. It’s about winning, again, at any cost.

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