By Michelle Goldberg
Opinion Columnist/ The New York Times
Recently people on the right have started pushing a ludicrous pseudo-scandal they’re calling Obamagate. It holds that investigations by Barack Obama’s administration into Russia’s attack on the 2016 U.S. presidential election were a form of illicit sabotage of Donald Trump and his team. The story doesn’t really make sense, which is why, when asked about Obamagate, President Trump couldn’t describe it. But at the heart of the conspiracy theory is “unmasking,” the routine practice by which national security officials find out the names of Americans who appear on intelligence intercepts of foreign actors. Trumpists have tried to turn this into a sinister and portentous term.
Obamagate exists to rewrite the history of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference to make Trump the victim, rather than someone who actively sought Russia’s help and then took steps to reward the nation’s president, Vladimir Putin, for providing it. Trump often accuses others of misdeeds that he is guilty of; recall his sputtering response to Hillary Clinton calling him a Putin puppet in a 2016 debate: “No puppet! No puppet! You’re the puppet!” In Obamagate, he is accusing his opponents of politicizing intelligence because of a political vendetta, which is what his administration is currently doing.
Richard Grenell, the erstwhile Twitter troll now serving as the acting director of national intelligence, just released a list of Obama officials whose “unmasking” requests revealed the name of Michael Flynn, who would soon become Trump’s national security adviser. Flynn had lots of sketchy contacts before Trump’s inauguration. Besides a call to the Russian ambassador at the time, Sergey Kislyak, that he lied about to the F.B.I., he was also tied to a purported scheme to kidnap and extradite a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania, among other escapades. Naturally, his name surfaced in foreign communications monitored by American intelligence agencies, communications that national security officials had good reason to want to learn more about. Republicans, however, seem determined to pretend to believe that Flynn was the target of a deep state plot.
This sub-Benghazi conspiracy theory could be cropping up now because the right hopes to use it against Joe Biden, who as vice president requested one of the unmaskings that turned up Flynn’s name. It’s even possible that Trump’s lawless attorney general, Bill Barr, might use Obamagate as a pretext to open an investigation into Biden. But Obamagate is also a way to distract at least some segment of the country from a very real and very grave scandal: Trump’s calamitous mishandling of the coronavirus crisis, exemplified by suspected political retaliation against Dr. Rick Bright, one of the government’s foremost vaccine experts.
Last week Bright, the former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a federal agency responsible for vaccine development, filed a whistle-blower complaint. He claimed that his attempts earlier this year to get the government to take the new coronavirus seriously were rebuffed, and that he was removed from his job after resisting pressure to fund “potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections and by the administration itself.”
On Thursday, as Trump was on Twitter asking Senator Lindsey Graham to drag Obama before Congress, Bright testified before a House subcommittee. His message was devastating. He described months of government lassitude early in the coronavirus outbreak, and an administration that has yet to even formulate — never mind execute — a plan for containing the pandemic.
Bright said that in January he received an email from Mike Bowen, whose company manufactures masks, warning that America’s supply of N-95 respirator masks was “completely decimated.” Bright recalled Bowen telling him that America and the world were in deep trouble — though “trouble” isn’t the word he used — and that immediate action was needed. “And I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could at H.H.S. and got no response,” said Bright. “From that moment, I knew that we were going to have a crisis for our health care workers because we were not taking action.”
Bright spoke of how dozens of federal scientists working on the coronavirus were distracted by an order to put all other work aside to focus on chloroquine, a drug typically used to treat malaria that Trump was then obsessed with. (Early studies into using chloroquine for Covid-19 patients have been disappointing.) He said that doctors and nurses are using substandard masks because the government was forced to procure them from countries without adequate quality control standards. “Some of those masks are only 30 percent effective,” he said. “Therefore, nurses are rushing in the hospitals thinking they’re protected, and they’re not.”
Now, as Bright said in his opening statement: “Our window of opportunity is closing. If we fail to develop a national coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities.” He warned, “Without clear planning and implementation of the steps that I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be the darkest winter in modern history.”
At one point, Representative Susan Brooks, Republican of Indiana, tried to push back on Bright’s claims. She discussed the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise, a coordinating body that brings together scientists from across the federal government, suggesting that Bright should have raised the alarm there about America’s lack of pandemic preparedness. “You hadn’t gotten the job done prior to January,” she said. “And you were at those tables.” Bright responded that the group has been essentially dismantled since 2017. “We have not had those interagency discussions for a number of years,” he said.
Dry as the breakdown of interagency discussions might sound, Bright was testifying to a bureaucratic debacle, brought about by an administration contemptuous of the ordinary workings of government. Early in Trump’s term, his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, boasted that the president’s appointees would oversee the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Nearly three and a half years in, this project has advanced considerably. The federal government’s coronavirus response is what it looks like in practice.
Since Trump took office, he has, like many authoritarians, built an alternative reality that deranges public discourse and encases his followers in a carapace of lies. As the evidence of his savage incompetence becomes harder to deny, the efforts to shore up that alternative reality will only become more desperate. The real scandal of a looted government leaving citizens prey to death and destitution will fuel ever more histrionic fake ones. It remains to be seen whether howls about Obamagate can distract from the desolation Bright warned of in January, and is warning of still.
(The New York Times)