To outside observers, the charges—like Trump’s original political sin, lying about the easily provable fact of Obama’s birth in the United States—seem so absurd as to be the mere caricature of a conspiracy, as sketched by a con-man who couldn’t even bother to offer convincing details. The point, though, is not to convince those who aren’t already in the know. “Obamagate” is niche programming for the Trump superfan audience. If you don’t get it, that doesn’t matter; you’re not supposed to. It’s a slogan, a rallying cry. Details are all but irrelevant. At 8:57 P.M. on Wednesday, Trump sent out an all-caps tweet. The message consisted solely of the word “OBAMAGATE” followed by an exclamation point. To those not following Trump as a daily soap opera, it might seem like a desperate diversionary tactic from a floundering President. To his supporters, it made perfect sense. Which is why, when Trump followed up on Thursday morning, with an equally angry and cryptic demand that Obama be called to testify before the Senate—about what was entirely unclear—news organizations mostly ignored him in favor of the morning’s testimony by the recently fired head of vaccines at the Department of Health and Human Services, or, as the Drudge Report called Richard Bright, the “whistleblower of doom.” Except for Fox News, that is, which obliged the President with a banner headline.
Hating on Obama, lying about him, blaming him: these long ago became the default settings of Trump’s Presidency. When Trump is troubled or cornered or simply deciding what to do, he often finds a way to bring Obama into it, no matter how tenuous or even absurd the connection. He has called Obama a “bad” person, a “sick” person, “a disaster,” “the most ignorant President in our history,” and even the “founder of ISIS.” Barely more than a month into his Administration, in early March of 2017, Trump accused Obama of secretly wiretapping him at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign, an allegation that was no more true than any of the other nutty things Trump has said about Obama since then. During the course of the pandemic in the past couple of months, Trump has repeatedly invoked Obama and sought to blame his predecessor for everything from the lack of a sufficient national stockpile of medical supplies to inadequate testing for the coronavirus, which did not exist when Obama was President. Trump often mentions Obama’s handling of the H1N1 swine flu, which killed twelve thousand Americans, but which Trump nonetheless claims was a disastrous contrast to his own deft handling of a national crisis that has so far tanked the American economy and killed more citizens than the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined. In fact, the President made a point of it again on Thursday afternoon during an appearance in Pennsylvania. For Trump, spending the week attacking Obama, no matter what the subject, is the political equivalent of retreating to his bedroom and hiding under the blanket. It’s his safe space, his comfort zone.