Donald Trump has ratcheted up his “Obamagate” conspiracy theory to implicate Joe Biden and other former White House officials in what critics say is a desperate attempt to distract from the coronavirus pandemic.
Ric Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, on Wednesday sent Congress a list of high-ranking Obama administration members he alleged were involved in the “unmasking” of retired general Michael Flynn, in intelligence reports dating from the presidential transition.
Alumni of Barack Obama’s staff gave the move short shrift.
“Sideshow to distract from the shitshow,” tweeted David Plouffe, a former Obama campaign manager.
“Rather talk about unmasking than masks,” observed Matthew Miller, an ex-justice department spokesperson.
Trump’s aggressive tactic looks set to deepen fears that he will stop at nothing to damage Obama and his vice-president, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
It also provides a counter-narrative to criticism of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 80,000 in the US. Fox News and Fox Business have mentioned Flynn and the FBI more frequently than the virus in recent days, according to data compiled by the Internet Archive and analysed by GDELT.
Grenell, a Trump ally, declassified and sent the list of names to Republican senators.
“I am providing a revised list of identities of any officials who submitted requests to the National Security Agency at any point between 8 November 2016 and 31 January 2017 to unmask the identity of former National Security Adviser, Lieutenant General Michael T Flynn,” read a memo from Gen Paul Nakasone, director of the National Security Agency, released by Grenell.
Unmasking is a routine practice used to identify a person anonymously referred to in an intelligence document. It takes place hundreds of times a year, without controversy.
Flynn was under scrutiny because of his conversations with the Russian ambassador about sanctions.
The list of officials released by Grenell includes former ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, former director of national intelligence James Clapper, former FBI director James Comey and former CIA director John Brennan. The last name on the list, from 12 January 2017, is Biden.
The Trump campaign seized on the document. Brad Parscale, his campaign manager, said: “We already knew Biden was briefed on the Flynn case before President Trump took office and now we know that he wanted Flynn unmasked. Americans have a right to know the depth of Biden’s involvement in the setup of Gen Flynn to further the Russia collusion hoax.”
Republicans demanded further investigation. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said: “The unmasking of Gen Flynn by the Obama administration regarding conversations during the presidential transition [is] deeply troubling and smell[s] of politics, not national security.”
He added: “I specifically want to know how many unmasking requests were made, if any, beyond Gen Flynn regarding members of the Trump campaign team, family, or associates.”
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said: “I am greatly disturbed by the shocking information my office received today that gives a window into possible abuses of power motivated by political decisions …
“I call upon the Senate to immediately hold hearings. Clapper, Comey, Brennan and even Joe Biden owe it to the American people. They should testify under oath.”
Trump himself has struggled to articulate his “Obamagate” conspiracy theory. Essentially it holds that Obama, Biden, Clapper, Comey and others plotted against Trump by concocting a hoax allegation that he colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election. Among those it contends were “framed” is Flynn.
Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador between the election and Trump’s inauguration. He was fired as national security adviser for lying to Vice-President Mike Pence.
But Trump and his allies have seized on disclosed FBI documents. One handwritten note from the FBI’s then director of counterintelligence said: “What’s our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?”
Last week the justice department said it would seek to drop charges against Flynn, contending that the FBI had insufficient grounds for interviewing him and that any imperfect statements he made were not material to the broader counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign.
The decision prompted Obama to warn that the “rule of law is at risk”, in a leaked tape which may partly explain Trump’s current crusade.
In a statement, a Biden spokesman, Andrew Bates, said: “Donald Trump’s attempt at dishonest media manipulation to distract from his response to the worst public health crisis in 100 years has backfired.
“These documents simply indicate the breadth and depth of concern across the American government – including among career officials – over intelligence reports of Michael Flynn’s attempts to undermine … national security policy.”
Bates accused Republicans of “abusing their congressional powers to act as arms of the Trump campaign after having [documents] provided by a partisan official installed for this very purpose”.
While the the investigation into links between Moscow and the Trump campaign started under Obama, the special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed by Rod Rosenstein, Trump’s own deputy attorney general. While he did not establish a conspiracy, Mueller did find evidence of numerous contacts between the campaign and Russia and did not exonerate Trump.
There is no evidence to support Trump’s claim that Obama and the FBI tried to take him down. The president’s allies have struggled to explain why the FBI reopened a damaging investigation into his opponent Hillary Clinton just before the election.
Asked by a Washington Post reporter on Monday to define his predecessor’s exact offence, he answered: “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”
David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W Bush, tweeted: “‘Obama-gate’ is basically Al Capone trying to indict the IRS for tax evasion.”
Susan Hennessey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, tweeted: “The latest right-wing attempt to gin up a fictitious scandal would be laughable if it weren’t actually a grotesque attempt to distract from 83,000 American deaths and counting while a criminally inept president rage tweets and interjects helpful suggestions like drinking bleach.”