President Trump has lost all his advantages in this election, though much of that isn’t his fault. His roaring economy, his historically low unemployment, and his trade deals have all inverted on their heads. Despite a herculean effort to get a vaccine in time for some kind of useful recovery, and a push for states to open, Trump finds himself far behind an invisible Joe Biden.
Harry Enten, formerly of FiveThirtyEight, now with CNN, is a fair and data-driven poll analyst. Enten’s take on the latest Wisconsin polls has Biden around 6 points ahead of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 lead. This is significant in that even accounting for polling errors, and an anti-Republican lean, Biden still leads. “In other words,” Enten wrote, “the state level polls suggest that Biden has a national lead of around 8 points.”
The president can’t improve the economy. He can’t wish the virus away. His handling of the crisis, regardless of whether you think he totally bungled it or was bamboozled by his medical advisors, has not resulted in the “millions of deaths” some predicted, or the “it’s the flu” version others have pushed. Compared with President Obama’s 2009 fight with H1N1, it seems we will come out of COVID-19 largely successful–with notable some exceptions such as New York.
But the economy has been eaten alive–we saw it coming and Congress punted. Blaming Congress isn’t going to accomplish anything, after spending around $6 trillion by the end of this thing (nearly a quarter of the U.S. GDP).
So, what to do if you’re Trump?
Blame Obama. Make the race not Biden vs. Trump, but Trump vs. Obama. Perhaps Barack Obama had the foresight to see this, so he withheld his cheek kiss for Biden until very recently, but now the die is cast. The former president intends to participate fully in this race, calling Trump’s coronavirus response an “absolute chaotic disaster.” Arguably, it isn’t. But arguably, that won’t sway a single vote when people are struggling. Plus, Trump would rather see the anger build (and stoke it) in places like California and Michigan, because he can use that later.
Right now though, Trump has made the race about “Obamagate.”
“Obamagate” in a loose definition, is the collection of crimes, misuse of power, and suborning of government institutions to hamper, hijack, and sabotage the Trump campaign, then the Trump administration. While critics (such as David Graham at The Atlantic) complain that the allegations are obscure, so weren’t the government’s allegations against Trump, especially considering the FBI used the infamous Steele dossier to justify FISA warrants.
To say that “Obamagate” is a conspiracy theory, as Tim Miller does at The Bulwark, and that it is “neither coherent not persuasive” is to dismiss it too easily. Will Bunch, at the Philadelphia Inquirer, went further, saying that the “real” Obamagate is that Obama took it too easy on Trump and the Russians. “Obama took a low-key approach to this info,” Bunch wrote, “— he thought it might look like interference in an election he was certain Hillary Clinton would win — and in hindsight that was a big mistake.”
The Washington Post editorial board is calling Obamagate “absurd cynicism.”
Mr. Trump’s precise allegation is hazy. But the apparent accusation is that, following Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory, Obama officials plotted to ensnare the incoming Trump administration in a Russia scandal.
It almost seems like these pieces are weaving cloth from the same thread, um, talking points. It’s probably because they are, and the protective media is circling around their favorite person in the world, Barack Obama. To hell with Joe Biden, this election, the one with Trump vs. Obama, is the one they also want.
Trump is giving the media what they want. He’s framing the race around Obamagate, and making Joe Biden less relevant. After surviving impeachment, Trump will get to have his Col. Nathan Jessup moment after all (“you can’t handle the truth!”).
There’s a lot of material for Trump to use here. First, we know that Attorney General Eric Holder turned the DOJ into a political weapon. Second, the whole Flynn affair, and the unmasking (or failure to mask), leads down a very dark hole into FISA shenanigans. This led former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy to speculate that Flynn’s intelligence was collected not by the FBI under FISA but by the CIA, which would indicate a much wider net by the Obama administration over the Trump campaign.
If the Mueller report found Trump guilty of collusion, then all Obama’s concern would be justified, and Will Bunch would be right in criticizing Obama for not going far enough. But there was no collusion. There was, in fact, a very strong reaction to having learned that the FBI, CIA, and what Trump calls the “deep state” was indeed monitoring him, and trying to build a case to use against him and his administration.
This is not conspiracy theory stuff–there’s tons of evidence it happened. Crossfire Hurricane’s goal was to investigate the Trump campaign and the president-elect. Trump was specifically not told about the breadth and purpose of that investigation. He was kneecapped from January 20th onward.
The media had a part to play in this, continually playing on White House leaks, confusion, intrigue, and backbiting. They fed Trump’s paranoia, hoping to break him. Just a peek at how Trump’s new Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany (who does her homework) gives the media exactly what for shows the richness of the last four years of anti-Trump bias, and how much material the president has to work with here–the media almost makes Trump’s case that Obamagate is real by the force of their strident defense.
Setting this tone is probably a politically smart move for Trump, as the media’s frenzy to protect Obama will help him with his core supporters, and also may persuade just enough undecideds to tighten up what for now is a very depressing poll landscape for the president.
As Harry Enten wrote, “The good news for Trump is he has about six months to change the course of the campaign, which is more than enough time to do so.” And as I’ve written again and again, this is Trump’s election to lose. He will win it, or lose it, not because of Joe Biden, but based on the anger Americans have for Democrats over continuing coronavirus lockdowns, and on how much of Obamagate he can make stick to the media’s love obsession, Barack Obama.