Amid pandemic woes, Trump turns spotlight onto ‘Obamagate’

Why We Wrote This

Many presidents have used diversion as a tool at times of political stress. But President Trump has demonstrated a talent perhaps unrivaled at getting the media and public to jump from issue to issue until they lose focus.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
President Donald Trump answers questions about China, the pandemic, and other subjects in an interview with Reuters in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, April 29, 2020.

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With the coronavirus pandemic still holding the United States in its grip, President Donald Trump has spent the week railing about former President Barack Obama.

Republican senators on Wednesday released a list of Obama-era officials – including former Vice President Joe Biden – who, during the transition period, requested to “unmask” the name of an American caught on wiretap communicating with a foreign espionage target. That American turned out to be former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. Some Republicans offered it as proof of a “setup of General Flynn.”

Unmasking is common – the National Security Agency has dealt with 10,000 to 17,000 such requests annually in recent years. And some of the requests came at a time when the sitting administration was growing increasingly concerned about contacts between the Trump team and Russian officials.

In that sense, the charges may be an example of one of President Trump’s favorite – and most effective – tactics: diversion. Time and again, the president has used the reach and repetition of social media and an accelerated news cycle to provide talking points for supporters, crowd out news that’s negative, and generally leave voters confused or even uncertain as to whether objective truth about the subject in question exists.

In a week when the coronavirus pandemic still held the U.S. in its grip and government health officials publicly warned the nation to be wary of restarting normal life prematurely, President Donald Trump accused his predecessor of criminal acts and hinted that a talk show host he dislikes was possibly involved in a murder.

Both charges are unfounded. But they could be yet more examples of one of President Trump’s favorite – and most effective – rhetorical strategies: diversion. At times of political stress, he has demonstrated a talent perhaps unrivaled in modern American politics for pointing one way, then another, then another, getting the media and public attention to jump from issue to issue until their heads spin.

Many presidents have used diversion as a communications tool, of course. It can be helpful in changing the national focus and framing issues in terms more favorable to their administration.

President Trump’s innovation may be to combine a willingness to make claims that are far from rock-solid – and at times demonstrably false – with the reach and repetition inherent in social media, and the accelerated news cycle that social media feeds. The resulting distractions provide talking points for his supporters, crowd out news that’s negative to his administration, and generally leave voters confused and even uncertain as to whether objective truth about the subjects in question exists.

“It’s a go-to strategy for Trump to point elsewhere when things go wrong and make a song and dance about it,” says Dominic Tierney, professor of political science at Swarthmore College.

An ability to seize the national agenda

Throughout his tumultuous time in office, President Trump has shown an ability to again and again seize the national agenda and direct it where he wants, with a tweet, a press conference, or an off-hand comment as he strides toward his Marine 1 helicopter.

Last July, for instance, as special counsel Robert Mueller prepared to testify before Congress, the president unleashed a series of tweets criticizing four Democratic congresswomen of color, among other things calling them “a very Racist group of troublemakers.” Unsurprisingly, the tweets received a large amount of news coverage.

More recently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have accused him of trying to draw attention away from the federal government’s COVID-19 testing failures by suddenly announcing a suspension of legal immigration, and by tweeting support for protests calling for the reopening of state economies.

During the novel coronavirus crisis, President Trump has been an “agent of distraction,” said Speaker Pelosi on April 22.

This week, the president has been railing about former President Barack Obama. Last Sunday – a day he tweeted or retweeted others 126 times, the third highest daily total during his time in office – President Trump accused his predecessor of undermining his administration by manipulating the “deep state” to falsely accuse former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn of criminal behavior.

On Thursday, President Trump on Twitter urged the Senate to call President Obama to testify. “If I were a Senator or Congressman, the first person I would call to testify about the biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA, by FAR, is former President Obama. He knew EVERYTHING,” President Trump wrote. “No more Mr. Nice Guy!”

Asked about the president’s tweet, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Politico: “I don’t think now’s the time for me to do that. I don’t know if that’s even possible.”

Senator Graham added: “I understand President Trump’s frustration, but be careful what you wish for.”

In its latest iteration, the “Obamagate” theory centers on “unmasking.” Under the law, U.S. intelligence redacts the names of American citizens caught on wiretaps communicating with foreign officials who are espionage targets. But top officials can ask that the name of the American in the conversation be “unmasked.”

Republican senators on Wednesday released a list of Obama-era officials who requested during the transition period to unmask a name that turned out to be Mr. Flynn. The list of officials includes then-CIA director John Brennan, and Vice President Joe Biden.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters/File
Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn departs after his sentencing was delayed at U.S. District Court in Washington, on December 18, 2018. Republican senators this week released a list of Obama-era officials who requested during the transition period to 'unmask' a name that turned out to be General Flynn. The list of officials includes then-CIA director John Brennan, and Vice President Joe Biden.

Some Republicans immediately offered the list as proof that Mr. Biden was part of a “setup of General Flynn” that enmeshed the incoming Trump team in a “Russia collusion hoax.”

But unmasking is common – the National Security Agency has dealt with 10,000 to 17,000 such requests annually in recent years, including under the Trump administration. The officials making the requests would presumably not have known the name of the U.S. citizen in question in advance.

And some of the unmasking requests came at a time when the sitting administration was growing increasingly concerned about contacts between the Trump team and Russian officials. It’s possible that some requests dealt with a phone call from a U.S. citizen to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, in which the American asked that Russia not respond to new Obama administration sanctions imposed as punishment for Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. 

Since the anonymous American’s call sought to undercut the foreign policy of the sitting U.S. president, the officials involved in making that policy might well have been interested in that person’s identity – which was Mr Flynn. 

Turning to another subject, on Mother’s Day President Trump also speculated on Twitter that MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough might have killed someone. “Did he get away with murder?” the president’s tweet read, in part. “Some people think so.”

Mr. Scarborough and his wife and “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski have long been one of the president’s favorite foils. Mr. Scarborough was a GOP congressman from Florida in the late 1990s, and the murder reference stems from the death of a young female aide in his district office.

At the time, Mr. Scarborough was in Washington, not Florida. Authorities determined after an investigation that she died after losing consciousness due to a heart condition and falling, striking her head on a table.

The circumstances prompted conspiracy theories, according to a 2017 Washington Post investigation, which concluded: “no foul play was suspected, and her death was ultimately ruled an accident by the medical examiner.”

‘Distraction is Politics 101’

President Trump is far from the first chief executive to try and drive public attention away from subjects that are politically sensitive.

“Distraction is Politics 101. At some level, this is just woven into the fabric of how leaders operate around the U.S. and the world,” says Dr. Tierney.

Prior to the Civil War, President James Buchanan tried to distract voters from the national schism over slavery by mounting a federal expedition to subdue Mormons in Utah, who were then resisting U.S. rule.

“I believe that we can supersede the [abolition crisis] with the almost universal excitements of an Anti-Mormon Crusade,” adviser Robert Tyler wrote in an 1857 letter to Buchanan.

This worked – briefly. But the Mormons and the feds struck a compromise, and the struggle over slavery known as Bloody Kansas loomed again.

Library of Congress
Prior to the Civil War, President James Buchanan tried to distract voters from the national schism over slavery by mounting a federal expedition to subdue Mormons in Utah, who were then resisting U.S. rule.

In a more modern example, President Lyndon B. Johnson in early 1966 was eager to distract Americans from upcoming Senate hearings he knew would be critical of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

On the spur of the moment, LBJ flew with much of his Cabinet to Hawaii for a quick conference on improving South Vietnamese domestic conditions. This was a brief success, but the Senate hearings, held by Sen. William Fulbright of Arkansas, went on for years. In that sense, the Hawaii jaunt did little to affect overall public opinion. Distractions, almost by definition, can only last so long.

Tweets are short, pandemics are longer

That may prove true even in the current political and social American environment.

On the one hand, President Trump commands an instant audience that would be the envy of LBJ – indeed, the envy of any previous Oval Office occupant. His tweets are retweeted by millions of followers and covered, and thus amplified, not only by Fox News but also CNN and the New York Times.

The conservative media network consisting of Fox, Rush Limbaugh, and others is something that Republican presidents like Richard Nixon could only have dreamed of as a means to project their points of view.

But like LBJ, President Trump may find that while his attempts to raise different subjects may work for a period of time, the underlying national conditions persist longer.

The president’s distraction attempts have been much less effective during the pandemic, says Vanessa Beasley, an associate professor of communications studies at Vanderbilt University who studies presidential rhetoric.

“COVID-19 has presented a unique rhetorical challenge to President Trump,” she says via email.

He’s no longer able to point to the strength of the economy, she says. Most of his political rivals have gone quiet. The virus itself can’t be tweeted away. And he himself has taken the stage for lengthy briefings. 

“If, before COVID-19, he was always asking us to look elsewhere in times of trouble, right now he is inviting us to look directly at him,” Dr. Beasley says.

That will probably reassure his strong supporters, she says. But the experience of recent weeks has shown it also has rhetorical costs, especially when he speaks about medical treatments and their efficacy.

“If he is counting on his presence to calm viewers and distract them from the costs of COVID-19, it is not clear that this strategy is effective,” she says.

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