There's a serious problem in the White House right now — and it isn't Obamagate

Andrew Feinberg
Donald Trump has redirected White House messaging on Covid-19: REUTERS

On December 8, 2004 at a military base in Kuwait, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld came under rhetorical fire from angry Americans who were about to be sent into US-occupied Iraq with antiquated equipment and vehicles protected by little more than scrap metal bolted onto the bottom and sides.

With roughly 800 US troops lost so far, Rumsfeld was pressed by one soldier on what he was doing to prevent him and his comrades from the same fate by addressing shortages of vital equipment such as body armor. Rumsfeld replied: "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has now killed more than 100 times that number of Americans — who President Trump calls “warriors” in the “battle against the invisible enemy” —but the 45th President of the United States is drawing inspiration from the 21st Secretary of Defense, even if he is getting Rumsfeld’s advice a bit backwards.

He’s “going to war” with the pandemic he wants, not the pandemic he has.

The United States leads the world in the number of people who’ve been infected by the coronavirus, with 1.45 million of the 4.44 million global confirmed cases occurring within America’s borders. And despite Trump’s claim that the US “leads the world in testing”, the country still trails a number of less-resourced nations in the number of tests performed as a percentage of total population.

Yet Trump is not troubled by seeing the slogan he repurposed from pro-Nazi Americans such as Charles Lindbergh — “America First” — coming to represent the United States’ place in the pantheon of countries most devastated by Covid-19.

Sources close to the president say he has all but moved on in his own mind, and views attempts by Democrats and medical experts to change the subject back to combating the ongoing global pandemic as simply a new spin on old attacks by his political opponents (a category which, in his mind, includes most of the federal workforce tasked with stopping the virus from killing more Americans).

A warning on the perils of reopening schools delivered by Dr Anthony Fauci — a 2004 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient who has advised every president since Reagan? “Unacceptable”.

Similar warnings by Dr Richard Bright, a less widely known but just as renowned figure in the medical profession who was removed from his job as a top US vaccine development official for warning about the coming pandemic earlier this year? Just the complaints of a “disgruntled employee”.

And the coronavirus testing cited by most reputable experts as the one thing that is absolutely necessary to combat the spread of Covid-19 absent a vaccine or reliable drug therapies? “Overrated” and possibly a reason for the high number of coronavirus cases.

“We have more cases than anybody in the world,” Trump said while speaking in Allentown, Pennsylvania on Thursday. “But why? Because we do more testing. When you test, you have a case. When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.”

“So we have the best testing in the world,” Trump continued. “It could be the testing is, frankly, overrated? Maybe it is overrated. But whatever they start yelling, we want more, we want more. You know, they always say ‘we want more, we want more’ because they don’t want to give you credit.”

Instead of heeding the advice of those charged with protecting Americans from the “invisible enemy”, Trump has moved on by moving backwards in time — to 2017.

Aided by Attorney General William Barr, Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grinell, a pair of Republican Senators, and many prominent figures in conservative media, Trump is trying to revive and rebrand a purported “scandal” from the earliest days of his administration — one which North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, a Republican who then chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee, said was “all created” by his then-House counterpart, California Representative Devin Nunes.

Ever desiring of a spectacle, Trump has even called for former President Barack Obama to testify before the GOP-led Senate, though Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham quickly poured cold water on that idea.

This byzantine theory, which Trump has dubbed “Obamagate” and claims is “the greatest political crime” (or “scam” or “hoax”) “in the history of our country,” is an outgrowth of an early attempt to undermine the Justice Department’s investigation into Russia’s attack on the 2016 election, something Burr’s committee found was conducted with the aim of boosting Trump’s candidacy.

It posits that the prosecution of Trump’s first National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, was a frame-up which began when the US Intelligence Community intercepted phone calls to and from foreign surveillance targets — calls in which Flynn participated.

Under US law, the names of Americans whose calls to or from foreign surveillance targets are intercepted are always “masked” in transcripts and reports distributed to the Intelligence Community’s “customers,” otherwise known as the elected officials and advisers tasked with protecting the country from threats.

What Trumpworld wants Americans to view as scandalous is the fact that upon reading those reports, a number of Obama-era officials asked for more information on who was speaking with those foreign surveillance targets.

In their rendering of events, the scandal is not that the president-elect’s choice for his National Security Adviser was speaking to a foreign adversary with the aim of undermining the sitting president’s actions, but that the sitting president and his advisers, having been briefed on the efforts to undermine, had the temerity to ask who was trying to undermine them.

Brad Moss, a Washington, DC-based attorney who routinely handles intelligence-related matters in his practice, said Trump’s claims of a newfound scandal don’t match the reality that the then-Republican-led House of Representatives already investigated the matter and found nothing of consequence.

“It was [then-South Carolina Representative] Trey Gowdy and Senator [Lindsey] Graham on the Senate side who said they had heard testimony from people like Susan Rice and Samantha Power, and they were satisfied that the unmasking requests were submitted properly,” he said.

“And sure enough, that's what you got right here — the DNI releases this document, and it says right there: ‘Authorised recipients submitted with proxy, to standard NSA processes’”.

But Ned Price, a former CIA staffer who served as a spokesman for the Obama-era National Security Council, said the documents released by Grinell actually make Flynn look worse.

“What it says is that a lot of people throughout the executive branch — to include career officials — were concerned by what they were reading,” said Price, who is now policy director for National Security Action.

“The point of masking and unmasking is that someone's name is not in that report, so it's not that they were unmasking Mike Flynn; they were concerned about the conduct about the activity they were reading about by an unidentified American and concerned enough to take a step that is available to them, where they request to NSA that the identity be unmasked,” he continued.

“So what Grinell is essentially saying is that all of these individuals — including many career people — were alarmed by the activity of an unidentified American submitted a request, career officials at NSA found their request compelling and agreed with them. It’s not that they were unmasking Mike Flynn; they were unmasking an unidentified American who was apparently doing shady business.”

Moss opined that the new attempt to make “unmasking” into a scandal is “strictly political and all about the campaign”.

“It's not even about making the Trump administration or Trump himself look any better, it's just about trying to drag down Biden's approval ratings and drag down his favorables, just like they were able to do with Hillary Clinton,” he said.

“Where you have a president with historically bad favorables of his own, who needs to pull that straight flush on the river once again come November, he has to do everything he can to flood the zone with whatever information is possible to turn off independents and more moderate Republicans from Joe Biden.”

Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, agreed that the goal of Trump’s calls for investigations “is not to prosecute anybody or to meaningfully reform anything”.

“The goal is to whip up debate and to distract from other things, in this case [Trump’s] horrible performance on the coronavirus, among other things,” he said. “All of this manufactured outrage is exactly that. It is someone trying to remind you that everybody except him is against you, and he is the only person who can save you from the evil socialists.”

McClanahan suggested the only reason that the unmasking issue is once more appearing in Trumpworld’s discourse is the fact that Trump’s national security team is now largely made up of loyalists seeking to gain his favor rather than explain that there’s nothing there.

“If you look at why it [the unmasking issue] went away, it went away because the people under Trump, the agency heads and whatnot, were not aggressively toadying for him. [They] just let it quietly die and his attention turned elsewhere,” he said.

“People like [former DNIs Dan Coats or Joseph Maguire] would never have had anything to do with this, not because they were anti-Trump, but because they were intelligent national security professionals. The former Secretary of Defense [James Mattis] would have had nothing to do with it, [ex-White House Chief of Staff] John Kelly would have had nothing to do with it.”

But Price sees a more sinister aspect to Trump’s renewed “Obamagate” crusade — the President is projecting to justify weaponizing the country’s national security apparatus against his adversaries, whether real or perceived.

Donald Trump sees fit to meddle in law enforcement investigations, he sees fit to put his thumb on the scale of justice, and there used to be this inviolable firewall between the worlds of policy and law enforcement, where the two were conducted entirely separately, and policymakers would have no substantive input on investigations or prosecutorial decisions,” he said.

“After everything that we've seen, that's clearly no longer the case, and I think that President Trump assumes that just because he does these things, his predecessor must have done the same.”

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