The 'Obamagate' diversion

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTwitter CEO: 'Not true' that removing Trump campaign video was illegal, as president has claimed Biden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination Barr says he didn't give 'tactical' command to clear Lafayette protesters MORE has failed to demonstrate any capacity to competently deal with this unprecedented public health crisis. The polls show that most Americans disapprove of how Trump has handled it so far. Polls also show that Americans would trust former vice president Joe Biden more than Trump to address COVID-19.

But instead of stepping up and fixing his botched response with a national science-based plan that would enable the country to open up gradually and safely, Trump and his team have gone all-in on an absurd conspiracy theory. 

Afraid that COVID-19 will be Trump’s downfall, and that Biden is getting a leg up on him in the presidential campaign, Trump and his supporters have invented a mythical conspiracy out of thin air to distract from his leadership failure, and try to taint Biden — enter “Obamagate.”

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The reality is that Obamagate is meant to obfuscate. It is designed to take voters’ minds off Trump’s coronavirus mess by making up something outlandish and scandalous about the former president and his vice president. That former vice president also happens to be the presumptive Democratic nominee who is now beating Trump in national polls

Trump and right-wing conservative media supporters contend that the Obama administration spied on the Trump campaign. They claim that high-ranking officials in the Obama White House plotted to launch the FBI investigation of Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn to undermine Trump’s presidency. 

There is no evidence to back up these outlandish claims, but that never stops this president from hurling untruths about his predecessor.

This was especially the case when Trump heard that Obama said during a private phone call recently that Trump’s handling of the coronavirus had been a “chaotic disaster” and that the country’s “rule of law is at risk” after learning that the Department of Justice would soon be dropping charges against Michel Flynn. Flynn, you might remember, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russia before Trump assumed the presidency. 

Stung by his bad poll numbers heading into the general election, his even worse approval numbers surrounding his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and now this recent leaked criticism of him by the former president, Trump unleashed a whirlwind of Twitter fury that doubled down on “Obamagate.” Trump further spread the conspiracy theory by retweeting conservative media commentators who are posting these false accusations.

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Trump and his supporters are using a standard national security procedure called “unmasking” to accuse the former administration of “spying” on Flynn and other former Trump campaign officials. 

Unmasking occurs when government officials ask for the identities of American citizens to be revealed to them (in a classified manner) when they are part of conversations caught through intelligence gathering on foreigners believed to want to do us harm. 

So, when there was a high-ranking American citizen clearly communicating with Russian officials and it caught the attention of our intelligence chiefs, our elected officials wanted to know who that person was. One of the people who wanted to know was Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination The Memo: Job numbers boost Trump and challenge Biden Chris Wallace: Jobs numbers show 'the political resilience of Donald Trump' MORE, who was vice president at the time. The person unmasked was Michael Flynn. 

The timing of all of this is quite peculiar, and it betrays the real reason the issue is now front and center for Trump. Trump’s acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, is also one of Trump’s most ardent supporters. He declassified the list of Obama administration officials who asked for the Russian-focused conversations with American citizens to be unmasked. Biden became a target of Obamagate because his name was on the list.

But this was in no way an indication of a plot to bring down Flynn and, by association, Donald Trump. In fact, Trump and the administration have struggled to identify what crime has been committed in the so-called Obamagate controversy.

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Moreover, President Obama had directly warned Trump and his administration about Flynn. When Obama administration officials asked to unmask the identity of the American on the phone call with the Russians, there was no way they could have known it was Flynn. 

Several national security officials have said that unmasking is not uncommon; in fact, the Trump administration has engaged in unmasking more often than the Obama administration did. 

But as always, Trump and his supporters will never let facts and truth get in the way of a juicy conspiracy theory. That’s especially true when a good one is badly needed to distract Americans from the disastrous handling of a public health crisis by a president who is already losing badly in the polls to his Democratic opponent. 

The “Obamagate” diversion will not work. It will delight Trump’s base, but it will further prove that Trump does not belong in the White House. 

Maria Cardona is a longtime Democratic strategist and co-chair of the Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws committee for the party's 2020 convention. She is a principal at Dewey Square Group, a Washington-based political consulting agency, and a CNN/CNN Español political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTCardona.