Obamagate, Explained

Chances are you saw at least a passing reference to “Obamagate” in May 2020, and chances are similar you (like many) struggled to understand what “Obamagate” might actually be. We’ll do our best to break it down.

What’s in a ‘Gate,’ Anyway?

Let’s get this out of the way.

The suffix “-gate” is prolific in American politics, its etymology explained at length in an Oxford English Dictionary blog post:

In 1972 the United States was transfixed by the revelation that the burglary at the national headquarters of the Democratic Party was connected with Richard Nixon’s Republican government. The burglary took place in the Watergate building, Washington DC, and thus, by metonymy, the scandal itself became known by the name of Watergate. One of the most significant episodes in modern US politics, Watergate has since reshaped the language of scandal and controversy in a format that also extends beyond English-speaking commentaries.

[…]

Now the term is applied, sometimes humorously or bathetically, to all kinds of scandals, controversies, and upsets, with recent US and UK examples including nipplegate, climategate, and Sachsgate. Although most of these formations are short-lived, –gate itself endures, having become a fully-fledged suffix, breaking all ties with the Watergate building.

Most “-gate” scandals are, as the examples from subsequent usage quoted above show, highly specific to an element of any purported scandal — such as “ClimateGate” or “NippleGate.” In the “Obamagate” iteration, the alleged “-gate” offered no linguistic clue to anyone attempting to determine what Obamagate actually referenced.

Current Discourse on Obamagate

If you look at the “Obamagate” hashtag on Twitter, you’ll see plenty of discussion of the severity and immediacy of Obamagate — missing in that foray, however, is typically any explanation of what Obamagate actually is:

The Genesis of Obamagate

“Obamagate” became part of the political discourse in the first week of May 2020, even as the death toll from COVID-19 skyrocketed in the United States.

On May 9 2020, CNN published a piece titled “Obama says White House response to coronavirus has been ‘absolute chaotic disaster.'” That article began with coverage of purported “searing” and “blistering” comments made by former United States President Barack Obama during a phone call involving people associated with his administration.

In its first three paragraphs, CNN described a multi-party conversation lasting about half an hour, among the “Obama Alumni Association,” intended to strengthen support for Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential bid:

Former President Barack Obama delivered a blistering critique of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus crisis, describing it as “an absolute chaotic disaster” during a private call [on May 8 2020] with people who worked for him in the White House and across his administration.

The searing comments, confirmed to CNN by three former Obama administration officials on the call, offered the starkest assessment yet from the former president about how President Donald Trump and his team have handled the deadly pandemic and why he believes Democrats must rally behind former Vice President Joe Biden to defeat Trump in November [2020].

In a 30-minute conversation with members of the Obama Alumni Association, the former president said the response to the coronavirus outbreak served as a critical reminder for why strong government leadership is needed during a global crisis. The call was intended to encourage former Obama staffers to become more engaged in Biden’s presidential campaign.

CNN reported that Yahoo News obtained an audio recording of the call, quoting Obama as having said in part:

This election that’s coming up — on every level — is so important because what we’re going to be battling is not just a particular individual or a political party. What we’re fighting against is these long-term trends in which being selfish, being tribal, being divided, and seeing others as an enemy — that has become a stronger impulse in American life.

Although the call itself was entirely irrelevant to whatever “Obamagate” might be, Trump’s embrace of the term rapidly followed suit.

The Day After and a Notable Retweet

The Atlantic surmised that the call alone and its coverage was what spurred “Obamagate” — no clear event, action, or newfound information generating Trump’s interest in the word and its supposed connotations:

Early the next morning [after May 9 2020], as part of a long string of Mother’s Day tweets—as these rants exceed themselves, it’s become more and more difficult to find superlatives to adequately describe them—Trump retweeted a user who had mentioned “Obamagate.” The term has quickly become part of Trump’s vernacular, with 13 subsequent uses, including two [on May 14 2020].

Precisely what Trump is alleging against Obama is obscure, and probably beside the point. Trump isn’t really interested in alleging any particular crime. The point of “Obamagate” is to try to recapture the force that propelled Trump to political prominence—questioning the legitimacy of the first black president—as he heads toward a difficult reelection campaign in the midst of a global crisis.

In that May 15 2020 article, The Atlantic made something of an extraordinary claim regarding Obamagate — that the word and attached rumors lacked any substance whatsoever — that it was not just untruthful, but meaningless. Whether that was intentional was left open, but the article maintained that Obamagate was advantageously nebulous, meaning that (like any conspiracy theory) it could absorb any new information, no matter how meaningless, and adding that “Trump’s political career has always revolved, perversely, around Obama.”

In The Atlantic‘s examination of Obamagate, the outlet proposed a theory about Trump’s fixation on Obama, namely that Obama’s clapback of Trump’s birtherism at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner was what originally ignited Trump’s ongoing ire:

Trump was a guest at the dinner, and Obama ridiculed him during his remarks. Noting that he’d recently released his “long-form” birth certificate, Obama said Trump could “finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter—like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

Trump fumed as the rest of the room guffawed. (He would later end the tradition of presidential speeches at the dinner.) Confidants have since said it was the moment he decided to run for president.

Moving ahead to the day the piece was published — May 15 2020 — the article continued, positing:

Obama has shown remarkable restraint in seldom criticizing Trump openly. Even his comments on the call were delivered privately, though in a way that effectively guaranteed they’d be made public. And for Trump, it seemed to have been the 2011 dinner all over again: Here was the black president, laughing at him, and it was too much to take. The result has been several days of hyperventilation about Obama, including a demand [May 14 2020] that the Senate call him to testify.

We looked for any May 14 2020 tweets (on which date the outlet referenced two by President Trump), but found only one:

Of a total 12 tweets in which President Trump used the word or hashtag “Obamagate,” three were singleword tweets:

A fourth contained one word and a video:

And another was basically the same “Obamagate” tweet:

Yet another tweet lauded a Fox News personality for “really [understanding]” Obamagate, but yielded nothing in the way of clues as to what it might have meant:

The longest of the tweets — all of which appeared after Obama’s May 9 2020 call and during the COVID-19 pandemic — praised a Fox News show for its coverage of Obamagate (“the greatest political scandal in the history of the United States”), but again was light on details about the substance of the supposed scandalous behavior:

The New Yorker also covered Trump’s “Obamagate” assertions on May 15 2020, opining that he was perhaps deliberately vague as he promoted the theory:

On Monday afternoon [May 11 2020], at a press conference on the White House lawn, Trump made that clear, in a memorable exchange with Phil Rucker, of the Washington Post, that echoed the paranoid fulminations of Trump’s hero Joseph McCarthy at his worst. “What crime, exactly, are you accusing President Obama of committing?” Rucker asked. “Obamagate,” Trump replied. “It’s been going on for a long time,” he added, without offering specifics. “What is the crime, exactly, that you’re accusing him of?” Rucker asked again. “You know what the crime is,” Trump answered. “The crime is very obvious to everybody.” Days later, that is still where we are: Trump is accusing Obama of a grave crime but refusing even to say what Obama allegedly did, while repeating over and over that the former President is guilty of something, a technique of political agitprop that recalls not only McCarthy but every wannabe dictator for whom the rule of law has little or nothing to do with accusations of illegality.

That article previously described claims made by Trump about Obama as of May 2020:

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.

Search Results for Obamagate and a Wikipedian Debate

Searching for “Obamagate” led to a curious result on Google. When we searched for “What is Obamagate,” the returned results highlighted a box on the right side of the page:

Alongside three stories from Google News and a result matching the term, a content box was labeled “Veracity of statements by Donald Trump.” That link led to a Wikipedia page with the same title, to which “Obamagate” also redirected via Wikipedia search.

That page began:

Donald Trump has made many false or misleading statements, including thousands during his presidency. Commentators and fact-checkers have described this as “unprecedented” in American politics, and the consistency of these falsehoods has become a distinctive part of both his business and political identity. Trump is known to have made controversial statements and subsequently denied having done so, and by June 2019, many news organizations had started describing some of his falsehoods as lies. The Washington Post said his frequent repetition of false claims amounts to a campaign based on disinformation. Debasing of veracity has been viewed as a tactic.

Section Five [5] of the page (“Presidency“), subsection four [4] (“Specific Topics“), sub-sub-topic 13 (“Obamagate“) read:

On May 10, 2020—one day after former president Barack Obama criticized the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump began tweeting about “Obamagate,” accusing the former president of the “biggest political crime in American history, by far!” When asked what the crime was, he refused to name the alleged crime, instead telling reporters, “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody.” Trump continued to promote the term Obamagate, exhibiting vagueness about what he means by it, but saying that “people should be going to jail for this stuff.” He suggested that Senator Lindsey Graham, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, should call Obama to testify about the “crime”, but Graham declined. Some of Trump’s allies later suggested that the “crime” involved the FBI launching an investigation into incoming national security advisor Michael Flynn. However, the FBI has claimed that the investigation was triggered by Flynn’s false statements to Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. The FBI interviewed Flynn four days after Trump took office. Flynn later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during that interview, although he attempted to withdraw his guilty plea several years later.

The page also displayed a flag indicating that its neutrality was disputed:

A “Talk” page detailing edits and other additions to the page indicated that the inclusion of “Obamagate” in its subsections and possibly Wikipedia editors’ failure to give the claim its own page was the sole cause for the flag. A May 22 2020 comment suggested the tag might not remain for long:

NPOV tag added due to (1) the redirect of the “Obamagate” page to this page, and (2) this recent blog post by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, which appears to concern this page in particular: [18] Narssarssuaq (talk) 19:53, 21 May 2020 (UTC)

Lol, what nonsense. A single ex-editor’s even one that claims to be a “cofounder”? what a silly backstory this guy has) opinion does not justify an article tag. Zaathras (talk) 23:47, 21 May 2020 (UTC)

He is a co-founder and you can learn more about his biography on his article. I support the inclusion of the NPOV tag because the article is clearly biased. – Munmula (talk), second account of Alumnum 03:05, 22 May 2020 (UTC)

Good luck with that, and you get support by nothing but trolls and IP editors, and the tag is removed in a week, tops. 🙂 Zaathras (talk) 03:10, 22 May 2020 (UTC)

Many more paragraphs were devoted to the presentation and alleged disputed neutrality of the term’s inclusion than the definition of the term itself, and even commenters arguing for semantic changes to the page added no additional information about the purported definition of “Obamagate,” or what crimes if any Trump claimed his predecessor committed.

A Buried Clue Appears

Incidentally, that talk page linked to a May 14 2020 blog post by Wikipedia’s co-founder Larry Sanger. There, it appeared at least some effort had been expended to define “Obamagate,” in the course of Sanger’s claim that Wikipedia’s editors were biased in favor of the former president:

Examples [of pro-Obama bias] have become embarrassingly easy to find. The Barack Obama article completely fails to mention many well-known scandals: Benghazi, the IRS scandal, the AP phone records scandal, and Fast and Furious, to say nothing of Solyndra or the Hillary Clinton email server scandal—or, of course, the developing “Obamagate” story in which Obama was personally involved in surveilling Donald Trump. A fair article about a major political figure certainly must include the bad with the good. The only scandals that I could find that were mentioned were a few that the left finds at least a little scandalous, such as Snowden’s revelations about NSA activities under Obama. In short, the article is almost a total whitewash. You might find this to be objectively correct; but you cannot claim that this is a neutral treatment, considering that the other major U.S. party would treat it differently. On such a topic, neutrality in any sense worth the name essentially requires that readers not be able to detect the editors’ political alignment.

As we noted above, the same claim appeared in passing in a May 15 2020 New Yorker article — and it appeared that the understanding of “Obamagate” was so poor that the author did not connect the current accusation with ones dating back more than three years:

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.

Incidentally, Sanger maintained that Wikipedia’s failure to properly emphasize the Obamagate claim — defining it as Trump’s claim that his predecessor illegally wiretapped or surveilled him in 2016 — was evidence of bias. However, that original 2017 claim does have a separate and lengthy entry devoted to it: “Trump Tower wiretapping allegations.” (Of additional note is the page’s most recent edits as of May 27 2020 occurred in April 2020, well before Trump revived “Obamagate.” It appeared that no editors, despite ongoing debate on the related page, managed to connect the two conspiracy theories as one.)

That page was initially published on March 8 2017. A subsection titled “2019 clarification” referenced 2019 comments made by Trump about his 2017 claims — which essentially retracted them:

On April 25, 2019, Trump said that his original allegation of “wires tapped” was not literal as he had used quotation marks, saying that he really meant: “surveillance, spying you can sort of say whatever you want”. Trump also said that his allegations were made “just on a little bit of a hunch and a little bit of wisdom maybe”. Trump elaborated that he thought his allegations were “pretty insignificant” when he made them.

Trump’s April 25 2019 comments occurred on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, and The Hill summarized his remarks:

President Trump said [on April 25 2019 that] his unsubstantiated claim in March 2017 that former President Obama had his “wires tapped” in Trump Tower was based on “a little bit of a hunch,” and suggested he was surprised it prompted such an outcry at the time.

The president called in to Sean Hannity’s Fox News show in which the two men railed against alleged improper behavior from federal law enforcement, which Trump contended continued after he won the 2016 election.

“I don’t know if you remember, a long time ago, very early on I used the word ‘wiretap,’ and I put in quotes, meaning surveillance, spying you can sort of say whatever you want,” Trump said, saying it garnered attention “like you’ve never seen.”

“Now I understand why, because they thought two years ago when I said that just on a little bit of a hunch and a little bit of wisdom maybe, it blew up because they thought maybe I was wise to them,” Trump continued. “Or they were caught. And that’s why. If they weren’t doing anything wrong it would’ve just gotten by, nobody would’ve cared about it.”

“It was pretty insignificant I thought when I said it, and it’s pretty amazing,” he added.

[…]

The Justice Department confirmed in a court filing the following September that neither it nor the FBI had evidence Trump Tower was the target of surveillance efforts by the Obama administration during the 2016 presidential election.

As of September 2017, the Justice Department affirmed it found no evidence that U.S. President Barack Obama or anyone acting on his behalf had spied on or wiretapped Trump, and neither did any new information emerge between that statement and Trump’s revival of the claims.

TL;DR

Based on hashtag activity, it is incredibly difficult to understand what “Obamagate” means — but one could be forgiven for believing it could be a big deal based on levels of engagement. It took us several hours to whittle away the noise and locate the signal — Obamagate was, essentially, rehashed claims that President Obama illegally wiretapped then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 election. Trump’s March 2017 accusations (presumably the same assumptions on which “Obamagate” were predicated) were addressed in a September 2017 court filing by the Justice Department, holding that both the “FBI and NSD confirm that they have no records related to wiretaps as described by the March 4, 2017 tweets.”

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