Donald Trump has spent much of this week hyping up a scandal called “Obamagate”, which he says is “the biggest political crime in US history”.
The President claims his predecessor Barack Obama is involved, along with his opponent in this year’s election, Joe Biden. And he says the perpetrators should be sent to prison.
“It is a disgrace what’s happened. This is the greatest political scam, hoax in the history of our country,” Mr Trump said today.
“People should be going to jail for this stuff, and hopefully a lot of people are going to have to pay.
“This was all Obama. This was all Biden. These people were corrupt. The whole thing was corrupt. And we caught them. We caught them.”
So, what exactly is the crime in question here? What did Mr Obama and Mr Biden get caught doing?
That is unclear. Mr Trump, it turns out, is not the most detail-oriented of men.
The more general allegation he’s making is far clearer, however.
Put simply, Obamagate is a dramatic escalation of Mr Trump’s long-held theory that officials in the Obama administration, including Mr Obama himself, conspired to illegally spy on his campaign in 2016, and then to sabotage his presidency.
A few recent revelations have renewed Mr Trump’s interest in the theory.
‘GET HIM TO LIE’: THE FBI’S NOTE
The most important background information here relates to the US government’s case against Mr Trump’s former national security adviser, General Michael Flynn. The President believes that case was part of a broader conspiracy to undermine him.
Gen Flynn was charged with lying to the FBI about conversations he had with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak.
Those conversations happened on December 29, 2016 – the same day Mr Obama imposed sanctions on Russia to punish it for its interference in the US election.
The phone calls were intercepted by US intelligence, which routinely monitors the communications of foreign diplomats. Officials were concerned Gen Flynn had undercut the Obama administration’s policy on sanctions by giving Russia the impression it could expect them to be relaxed once Mr Trump took office.
A few weeks later, in an interview with the FBI, Gen Flynn lied, denying he had discussed the sanctions with Mr Kislyak. Hence the charges.
Incidentally, he told the same lie to others in the Trump administration, including Vice President Mike Pence and Press Secretary Sean Spicer, both of whom repeated it on television. That is why Mr Trump eventually fired him.
Gen Flynn initially pleaded guilty, and became a co-operating witness in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election interference. In return, prosecutors recommended that he be sentenced leniently.
But last year, Gen Flynn hired a new lawyer, who took a more aggressive approach to the case. She claimed the FBI and prosecutors had been biased against Gen Flynn, and accused the government of misconduct. Judge Emmet Sullivan rejected her accusations.
In January of this year, Gen Flynn sought to withdraw his guilty plea. And then, last week, the Justice Department (DOJ) controversially decided to drop its case against him.
That decision came shortly after Gen Flynn’s legal team released a number of documents it said supported its accusations of bias against the government.
Foremost among them was a note written by FBI counterintelligence director Bill Priestap before the agency interviewed Gen Flynn. In it, he considered how they should approach the conversation.
“What’s our goal? Truth/admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” Mr Priestap wrote.
“If we get him to admit to breaking the Logan Act, give facts to DOJ and have them decide. Or, if he initially lies, then we present him (redacted) and he admits it, document for DOJ, and let them decide how to address it.”
The Logan Actprohibits unauthorised American citizens from negotiating with foreign governments that are in a dispute with the US. The FBI believed Gen Flynn breached it when he discussed the sanctions with Mr Kislyak.
Mr Priestap’s note fuelled renewed outrage from the President, who took it as proof for his theory that the government had set Gen Flynn up.
“It looks like, to me, that Michael Flynn would be exonerated, based on everything that I see,” Mr Trump said.
Others argued the note was typical of the FBI’s approach to interviews, and was being blown out of proportion by Mr Trump and his supporters.
THE WHITE HOUSE MEETING
The documents released by Gen Flynn’s legal team also included details of a White House meeting between Mr Obama, his national security adviser Susan Rice, FBI director James Comey and deputy attorney-general Sally Yates.
That meeting was held on January 5, 2017, about a fortnight before Mr Obama handed over to Mr Trump. It was convened to discuss US intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia had intervened in the 2016 election to help Mr Trump win.
The agencies’ report became public knowledge two days later.
Gen Flynn’s phone calls with Mr Kislyak were discussed during the meeting.
In her testimony to the Mueller investigation, Ms Yates said Mr Obama asked Mr Comey whether “the White House should be treating Flynn any differently” during the transition as a result of the calls. She could not remember Mr Comey’s answer.
Citing a senior official with knowledge of the meeting, NBC News reports Mr Obama wanted to know whether he should instruct Ms Rice – whose job Gen Flynn was about to take – to “withhold or be careful with” any information she gave him about Russia.
Mr Trump and his supporters have taken this meeting as evidence that Mr Obama knew, well ahead of time, that the FBI was investigating and planning to interview Gen Flynn.
However, Ms Yates said no interview was mentioned during the meeting. She did not learn the FBI was interviewing Gen Flynn until it actually took place on January 24.
THE UNMASKING CONTROVERSY
Earlier this week, the acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell declassified a list of Obama administration officials who had requested that Gen Flynn be “unmasked” in classified intelligence reports.
What the heck does that mean, I hear you ask.
US intelligence agencies routinely spy on hundreds of foreigners. That involves reading their messages and listening to their phone calls.
Before that intelligence is circulated throughout the government, the names of any Americans the foreigner spoke to are typically removed. So, the initial intelligence report does not say that, for example, Sergey Kislyak spoke to Michael Flynn – merely that he spoke to an unnamed American.
US officials with the proper level of clearance can ask for an American’s identity to be “unmasked”, to give them a more complete understanding of the intelligence. It’s a common process that happens thousands of times every year.
That is what happened with Gen Flynn. Intelligence agencies were monitoring Mr Kislyak’s phone calls, and picked up his contacts with the incoming national security adviser. Obama administration officials who received the intelligence reports saw that Mr Kislyak was repeatedly talking to an American. They then asked for the American to be unmasked, and it turned out to be Gen Flynn.
Thanks to Mr Grenell, we now know the officials who asked for the unmasking included Mr Biden, CIA director John Brennan and UN ambassador Samantha Power, along with a bunch of much less famous people.
Interviewed on Good Morning America this week, Mr Biden said he knew very little about the Flynn investigation back in early 2017. But his answers were confusing.
“I knew nothing about those moves to investigate Michael Flynn,” he said at one point.
“I thought you asked me whether I had anything to do with him being prosecuted,” he clarified later.
“I was aware that they asked for an investigation, but that’s all I know about it.”
Mr Trump pounced on those remarks, claiming they were contradicted by the list of names released by Mr Grenell.
“The unmasking is a massive thing,” Mr Trump told reporters on Wednesday.
“I watched Biden yesterday on Good Morning America, and he said he knew nothing about anything. He has no idea. He knows nothing about anything. Nothing at all. And then it gets released today that he was a big unmasker.
“How do you know nothing if you’re one of the unmaskers?”
Mr Trump started to tweet incessantly about Obamagate last weekend, just after a story emerged on Friday detailing Mr Obama’s private criticism of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response.
“What we’re fighting against is these long term trends in which being selfish, being tribal, being divided and seeing others as the enemy – that has become a stronger impulse in American life,” Mr Obama told former members of his administration, in comments leaked to Yahoo News.
“It’s part of the reason why the response to this global crisis has been so anaemic and spotty.
“It would have been bad even with the best of governments. It has been an absolute chaotic disaster, when that mindset – of ‘what’s in it for me’ and ‘to heck with everybody else’ – when that mindset is operationalised in our government.”
The former president also criticised the US Justice Department’s decision to drop its case against Gen Flynn.
“That’s the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic – not just institutionalised norms, but our basic understanding of the rule of law, is at risk,” he said.
Republicans said Mr Obama had breached the informal tradition that former presidents refrain from criticising the current occupant of the White House.
Senate leader Mitch McConnell said Mr Obama “should have kept his mouth shut”.
Mr Trump, meanwhile, reacted by accusing his predecessor of committing “the biggest crime in American political history by far”.
‘THE CRIME IS OBVIOUS’
At a media conference on Monday, Mr Trump was asked to be more specific.
“What crime exactly are you accusing President Obama of committing, and do you believe the Justice Department should prosecute him?” a reporter asked.
“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,” Mr Trump replied.
“And if you look at what’s gone on, if you look at now all of this information that’s being released – and from what I understand, that’s only the beginning – some terrible things happened, and it should never be allowed to happen in our country again.
“You’ll be seeing what’s going on over the coming weeks, and I wish you’d write honestly about it, but unfortunately you choose not to do so.”
“What is the crime exactly, that you’re accusing him of?” the reporter pressed.
“You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you’ve got to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”
During an interview on Fox Business today, the President was again asked to explain what, exactly, he was alleging.
“It’s very simple,” Mr Trump said.
“Even before I got elected – you remember the famous, the two lovers, right? Strzok and Page. The insurance policy. ‘She’s going to win, but just in case she doesn’t, we have an insurance policy.’
“That means that if I won, they’re going to try and take me out. That’s all it means. Very simple, it’s an insurance policy. ‘So she’s going to win, isn’t she darling? Isn’t she going to win?’”
And with that, host Maria Bartiromo cut away to an ad break.
Peter Strzok and Lisa Page were two FBI employees who worked on the Russia investigation. They also had an affair with each other, as Mr Trump delights in pointing out.
A text sent between the pair in August of 2016, three months before the election, is another feature of Mr Trump’s Obamagate theory.
“I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office – that there’s no way he gets elected – but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk,” Mr Strzok wrote at the time.
“It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before 40.”
That text came two weeks after the FBI started to investigate whether members of Mr Trump’s campaign were co-ordinating improperly with Russia, having learned that foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos knew Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Since the text became public, Mr Strzok and Ms Page have said they were arguing over how urgently the investigation should proceed.
“We had sort of, quite regular conversations about trying to balance getting the answer as quickly as possible, right? Because if the answer is this is a guy (Mr Papadopoulos) just being puffery at a meeting with other people, great, we don’t need to worry,” Ms Page told congressional investigators.
“If this is, in fact, the Russians have co-opted an individual, maybe wittingly or unwittingly, that’s incredibly grave, and we need to know that as soon as possible.”
As you can tell from his own spin on the text, Mr Trump feels the “insurance policy” was actually a conspiracy to take down his presidency, should he win the election.
‘HE KNEW EVERYTHING’
Mr Trump has called on Congress to make Mr Obama testify under oath, though technically former presidents cannot be compelled to appear at such hearings.
“If I were a senator or congressman, 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. He knew EVERYTHING,” Mr Trump tweeted yesterday, addressing Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.
He urged Mr Graham to “just do it”.
“No more Mr Nice Guy. No more talk!”
Mr Graham did not seem particularly taken with the idea.
“I don’t think now is the time for me to do that. I don’t know if that is even possible,” he told Politico when he was asked about the tweet.
“I understand President Trump’s frustration, but be careful what you wish for.”
It will not have escaped your notice that Mr Trump still has not pointed to an actual crime Mr Obama or Mr Biden may have committed.
But the general allegation is clear enough. Mr Trump believes his predecessor colluded with intelligence officials to set up Gen Flynn and try to take down his presidency. That is what Obamagate boils down to.
With this year’s election against Mr Biden six months away, you can expect Mr Trump to keep talking about it – whether or not the evidence actually backs him up.