Under cover of awful darkness—85,000 dead Americans, nearly all of whom should be alive today, and a great depression of his own making—President Trump has accelerated his efforts to dismantle the rule of law in America. Those efforts have now reached an end stage where, having successfully manipulated the justice system to jailbreak his coconspirators and place those who investigated them under investigation themselves, he will now endeavor to use it to deprive his enemies of their freedom for his own political advantage.
Trump couldn’t have made so much progress toward this goal without the encouragement of Republicans in Congress, nor an opposition party that long ago decided it wouldn’t oppose him on the basis of his general lawlessness—nor perhaps without a national press corps that varyingly sanitizes or revels in that conduct.
But he also couldn’t do it without mass deception—a fabricated tale in which his enemies are corrupt, and he is just. There’s no such thing as OBAMAGATE, not even Donald Trump can tell you what it means. But that meaningless word has already been broadcast unfiltered into the homes and Twitter apps of millions of Americans, along with a blizzard of lies designed to give it the appearance of meaning. And Republicans won’t stop until it, like BENGHAZI, EMAILS, and BURISMA before it, creates a miasma of scandal around Democrats that makes it impossible for many voters to say one way or another which party is headed by a crook, and which is not.
The truth of the matter at the heart of the coming disinformation campaign isn’t hard to grasp, particularly for those who have more than passing familiarity with the details of the Russia investigation or the Mueller report. But that doesn’t mean Trump’s propaganda campaign won’t work—or, worse, that people won’t find themselves under indictment, facing years in prison, as part of a desperate bid to help Trump win re-election and spare him from legal consequences of his own.
Attorney General Bill Barr has been the tip of the spear of Trump’s recent assaults on the rule of law, and now is no exception. The catalyzing event this time was Barr’s move to drop federal charges against Trump’s disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
The story of Flynn’s demise is really quite straightforward. As Trump foreign-policy adviser in 2016, Flynn was assigned among other things to find Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails, facilitating Russia’s efforts to sabotage her campaign. During the transition the outgoing Obama administration sanctioned Russia for interfering in our election, and in response, Flynn secretly called the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergei Kislyak, to suggest Russia refrain from retaliating, because he and Trump would simply undo the sanctions after inauguration—that is, let Russia off scot free for helping them win the election. The U.S. government intercepted this conversation as part of its routine monitoring official Russian communications, and when Flynn began lying publicly about the call, the Justice Department (which was already investigating Flynn for this and other reasons) alerted the new administration that Trump’s national security adviser had become a blackmail target. Russian officials knew he was lying, too, and presumably had a recording of their own to prove it. Unfortunately for Flynn, he also told these lies to FBI counterintelligence agents, which is why Robert Mueller ultimately charged him with perjury, and why he pled guilty.
Flynn cooperated with Mueller to the satisfaction of Mueller’s prosecutors, but he conveniently claimed not to recall whether Trump had ordered him to phone up Kislyak, obscuring Trump’s involvement in the corrupt quid pro quo. That may explain why Trump never turned on Flynn, and why he and Barr orchestrated a backdoor pardon by dropping charges against a confessed felon.
But there’s also more to it: After all, letting Flynn walk is an essential part of turning the Russia investigation inside out. If it was a hoax, then those legally implicated in it must have been railroaded. Springing Flynn from justice both buys his continued silence and advances the lie that the whole Russia investigation was a deep-state plot to sabotage the Trump campaign and administration. Naturally nobody can explain the workings of a plot that involved investigating the Trump campaign’s extensive, corrupt foreign entanglements, but never telling voters about them, then only charging Flynn after he chose to perjure himself. But this amorphous conspiracy is, basically OBAMAGATE.
There are both strong and weak forms of OBAMAGATE, just as BENGHAZI connoted a number of insane conspiracy theories and a narrower allegation that the Obama administration tried to spin away a terrorist attack. (Those were simpler times.) In crazier and more fascistic political circles, President Obama himself committed some form of unspecified crime by presiding over the Russia investigation and Trump and Barr will soon bring him to justice. The formlessness of the accusation is what makes Trump look so ridiculous—why he tweets the word OBAMAGATE over and over, but can’t answer basic questions about it, or say what Obama could have done wrong anyhow, given Trump’s repeated insistence that Article II of the Constitution allows the president to do whatever he wants.
But it also serves a purpose.
Quite apart from Flynn’s actual conduct and the merits of the investigation against him, Barr and various other Trump loyalists have homed in on a different question: How did the fact of Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak end up becoming public knowledge? “Investigators for John H. Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut leading the investigation, have asked witnesses about news articles published in early 2017 that former administration officials blame for prompting the chaos that dominated the early days of the Trump presidency,” the New York Times reported last month. “Among them was a Washington Post column about Michael T. Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser.”
Flynn was a compromised figure whom Trump intended to install at the helm of the National Security Council, where he’d have access to all the country’s secrets. The leak was presumably meant to protect the nation from that danger. But it was also very likely illegal. If Barr’s goon squad finds the leaker, that person will either be vulnerable to prosecution, or be someone high profile enough to have had the authority to disclose the Flynn information legally.
Either way, the political fallout will be enormous. Not because it will vindicate Trump on the merits in any way, but because Republicans aren’t scared of using power to manipulate public opinion. The identification of a leaker, especially one who broke the law, wouldn’t just generate headlines about an Obama-era official who had it out for the incoming Trump administration. It would be held up as evidence that the plot against Trump is real. OBAMAGATE!
We will learn (or relearn) that congressional hearings are a powerful agenda-setting tool after all, and that Congress’s subpoena power isn’t actually toothless. Because Democrats have largely abdicated their oversight obligations, the public will see Congress exercised about only one thing, making it appear to be the only genuine malfeasance worthy of aggressive investigation. And because Democrats decided to hide from Robert Mueller’s findings rather than make a big stink about the extraordinary malfeasance he uncovered, they will be left to respond to all this from a defensive posture. The fact that Flynn played a key role in the Trump campaign’s cooperation with Russian election interference, that he secretly dangled Russians the promise of a reward for their help, and then lied about it to the FBI—all of this should be widely understood and make Flynn toxic. Democrats will instead have to build this case now, amid a thundering disinformation campaign that presents Flynn as the victim of Democratic scheming.
In raw political terms this may not do Trump much good. Mass death in America was, again, the cover Trump used to seize control of the Flynn prosecution. Trump may find it difficult to successfully distract people from it with show trials and fake conspiracies, even assuming he can find someone to pin a real or imagined crime on. But Trump will try; and when it’s over, the metamorphosis of the Justice Department into a tool of his political control will be complete.