On the night of Saturday, May 9, President Donald Trump tweeted five Fox News clips: One from Sean Hannity’s Hannity, two from Jeanine Pirro’s Justice With Judge Jeanine, and two from Jesse Watters’ Watters’ World.
All of the clips were about a supposed “coup d’état,” as the Fox anchors called it, committed by the Obama administration during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. “Obamagate, that’s the subject of tonight’s ‘Watters Words'” segment, Watters said. “The Obama people got caught this week and it looks like it goes straight to the top.”
But just what is Obamagate?
Although the #Obamagate hashtag has been popular across all major platforms, it has also elicited confusion from people not tapped into the inscrutable narratives of Trump’s fervent online base.
And the president did little to clear up the confusion in a press conference on Monday afternoon: “Obamagate, it’s been going on for a long time, it’s been going on from before I even got elected,” the president said. Asked specifically what crime he was accusing Obama of, the president declined to answer. “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours,” he said.
While no one can read the president’s mind, the clearest distillation of what his followers believe the hashtag to mean came from former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s attorney during a Fox segment on Sunday, where she claimed that the declassified memos proved FBI agents tried to entrap Flynn, then a campaign adviser to Trump, on the order of President Barack Obama.
“The whole thing was orchestrated and set up within the FBI, Clapper, Brennan, and in the Oval Office meeting that day with President Obama,” Flynn’s lawyer, Sidney Powell, told host Maria Bartiromo.
What Fox News has been referring to was last week’s delivery of 6,000 pages of newly declassified transcripts of interviews conducted by the House Intelligence Committee in 2017 and 2018 from the new acting intelligence director, Richard Grenell, to Attorney General William Barr.
In reality, the newly public documents provide little more than a few extra details into what special counsel Robert Mueller released in his April 2019 report on Russian interference into the 2016 election. According to Fox News, however, they were something else: a smoking gun that Obama had ordered the FBI to interfere in Trump’s campaign.
“Sources are telling Watters’ World that Attorney General Bill Barr was just given a trove of smoking gun documents that could point directly at former president Barack Obama, revealing his powerful connection to ‘Spygate’ and the Russia hoax,” Watters said on Saturday.
“At the core, the thing that scares Obama and Biden is the truth,” former House Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz then said during a Fox News interview Monday. “It’s hard to believe that there is anything other than direct acknowledgment and direction from the president of the US to the FBI director, who then does things a couple of weeks later that is totally unprecedented in storming, in that the White House, putting this ambush together, and going after General Flynn like we’ve never seen before.”
The declassified documents were released a day after the Department of Justice dropped charges against Flynn, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the former Russian ambassador during the presidential transition.
Flynn served as an adviser to Trump during the campaign — and when he was under federal investigation for secret lobbying work on behalf of the Turkish government. Despite Obama telling Trump on Nov. 10, 2016, not to hire Flynn, Trump made Flynn the national security adviser. Just days before taking that job, Flynn spoke to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak about how the United States planned to retaliate against Russia for interfering in American elections, a call intercepted by US intelligence and reviewed by Obama advisers. Flynn went on to serve as national security adviser until February 2017, when reports that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about the Kislyak conversations forced him from office.
“Yesterday was a BIG day for Justice in the USA,” Trump tweeted on Friday morning, after the charges against Flynn were dropped. “Congratulations to General Flynn, and many others. I do believe there is MUCH more to come! Dirty Cops and Crooked Politicians do not go well together!”
Flynn walking free seemed to prove to Trump’s supporters that there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.
“Remember that time when Flynn was fully exonerated and all the Russia hoaxers disgraced by their own words on the same day,” right-wing news anchor Jack Posobiec tweeted on Thursday.
“The Justice Department just said they are DROPPING it’s criminal case against General Flynn! He has been totally exonerated,” Ryan Fournier, founder of Students for Trump, tweeted. “Now he needs to be rehired by the Trump Administration!”
“There is no precedent that anybody can find for someone who has been charged with perjury just getting off scot-free,” Obama said in a private meeting on Friday. “That’s the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic — not just institutional norms — but our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk. And when you start moving in those directions, it can accelerate pretty quickly, as we’ve seen in other places.”
Despite the former president’s remarks, the declassified transcripts and the dropped charges gave the current president, his supporters, and Fox News plenty to talk about. And they had plenty of reasons to change the subject.
Last Thursday, a valet to the president tested positive for the coronavirus. On Friday, Pence spokesperson Katie Miller, a regular attendee of coronavirus task force events, was announced to have tested positive, sparking fears that the virus was spreading at the White House. Three members of the White House coronavirus task force, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, announced they’d be self-quarantining. As of Monday, most White House officials have been asked to wear masks, a directive that will not apply to the president.
But as the White House scrambled to contact-trace which members of the administration had been exposed to infected staffers, Hannity, Pirro, and Watters banged the “Obamagate” drum. According to the Fox anchors, the “satchel” of declassified documents proved true a long-running right-wing conspiracy theory, often referred to as “Spygate,” or “Russiagate.”
Though there has still yet to be any evidence to prove it, Trump and prominent Republicans like California Rep. Devin Nunes and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows have suggested that the Obama administration embedded a spy in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. The claim received its moniker on May 23, 2018, when Trump tweeted “SPYGATE could be one of the biggest political scandals in history!”
The declassification of the transcripts this week was the work of Grennell, who has been a close Trump ally. Before taking the position, Grennell did consulting work on behalf of an Eastern European oligarch, a Moldovan politician named Vladimir Plahotniuc, who is now a fugitive and barred from entering the US under anti-corruption sanctions. Contradicting a report from US intelligence, in March 2020, Grenell’s office told lawmakers that Moscow was not “directly aiding any candidate’s re-election or any other candidates’ election” during the 2020 election.
According to data from BuzzSumo, stories about the dropped charges against Flynn have been a major talking point on right-wing social media, but stories about the declassified documents hadn’t been causing much of a blip until Fox News’ and Trump’s Saturday-night blitz, when the story started to trend via the #Obamagate hashtag.
According to an anonymous data scientist on Twitter, the #Obamagate hashtag was promoted by midsize right-wing influencers such as @AKA_RealDirty and the QAnon-affiliated @SheepKnowMore and started to trend after it was amplified by Brazilian former Olympic volleyball player Ana Paula Henkel, who has an active second life as a right-wing influencer on Twitter. “Everything has exploded now. This is journalism,” she tweeted in Portuguese, sharing the Watters World clip.
After Henkel’s tweet, supporters of Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro ran with Obamagate. There was no evidence of bot activity promoting the hashtag initially. Declining further comment, Conspirador Norteño told BuzzFeed News that everything their team found in their research was in the thread.
Once the hashtag was trending, US-based Twitter accounts piled on, including more mainstream influencers like longshot California Republican congressional candidate Errol Webber. And according to Twitter metrics site twXplorer, two of the most popular hashtags related to #Obamagate are #QAnon and #wwg1wga, illustrating promotion from QAnon accounts, who believe Trump is waging a secret war against the deep state.
According to Twitter’s Trending Topics page, the #Obamagate hashtag had been used over 3 million times since Saturday night, briefly becoming one of the top trending topics in the world. And as is often the case, right-wing influencers claimed without evidence that Twitter was censoring the hashtag.
Twitter told BuzzFeed News that the company had looked into accusations that the hashtag had been censored and found that no action was taken to prevent #Obamagate from trending.
The hashtag has led some right-wingers to suggest on social media that Obama and members of his administration will be investigated and prosecuted.
One of the most popular memes about #Obamagate — one shared by Trump’s own Instagram page — reads “hope you had fun investigating me now it’s my turn.” The #Obamagate Facebook posts are full of Trump supporters ecstatic that an investigation into what they see as Democratic corruption is imminent.
Whether such an investigation will occur, Trump and Fox News have already achieved something else: a weekend during which Trump supporters could flood the platform with content about Obama and the minutiae of the 2016 election just when the coronavirus crossed a total of 1.3 million cases and 80,000 deaths in the United States.