No foe provokes Donald Trump like Barack Obama. Now, their animosity is taking center stage in the 2020 presidential race.
It’s raged for a decade, ever since Trump joined the racist chorus questioning Obama’s legitimacy.
Some think the former president’s derisive response at a 2011 Washington press dinner of Trump’s repeated but unproven claim that Obama was born in Kenya helped spur the real estate mogul to seek the presidency.
As president, Trump has sought to obliterate Obama’s legacy, from Obamacare to the Iran nuclear agreement.
Now, Obama has decided to go public with pointed criticism of Trump’s management of the coronavirus pandemic, prompting the president to launch an incendiary new line of attack suggesting his predecessor masterminded a criminal conspiracy to undermine him.
He calls it “Obamagate,” invoking other political scandals since “Watergate” sank Richard Nixon. Trump wants Senate Republicans to investigate the former president, a demand they have so far wisely resisted.
In a sense, it’s typical Trump, changing the subject when under fire. It’s also created the odd situation of a campaign debate between the president and his predecessor, rather than his likely Democratic rival.
That poses problems for both sides. Obama’s prominence makes presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden look disengaged from the debate. But Trump is showing his unpleasant side even some backers disdain.
Besides, of the three, Obama is the most popular, raising a question if it’s politically wise for Trump to elevate his role in this election.
When Trump joined the “birthers” questioning Obama’s legitimacy, many thought he was trying to establish Republican bona fides. At the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — with Trump present — Obama retaliated.
As his legitimate Hawaii birth certificate flashed on screens, Obama said “no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald,” adding “that’s because he can 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?”
Mocking Trump’s “credentials and breadth of experience,” he compared his choices on “Celebrity Apprentice” with “the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night.”
Though Trump denied that affected his decision to run, Obama became his frequent target, in the campaign and afterward.
He blamed Obama national security officials for what he calls the “Russia hoax,” the contention Russia helped him win the presidency that led to special counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year probe, whose origins various Republicans are now investigating.
But his verbal animus soared after a leaked phone call in which Obama called the government’s handling of the pandemic an “absolute chaotic disaster.”
On Mother’s Day, Trump unleashed 126 tweets and retweets, many bearing the hashtag OBAMAGATE and attacking Obama’s criticism of the administration’s decision to drop the prosecution of ousted national security adviser Mike Flynn.
A typical rejoinder retweeted conservative commentator Buck Sexton’s claim “the outgoing president used his last weeks in office to target incoming officials and sabotage the new administration.” Added Trump: “The biggest political crime in American history, by far!”
On May 11, The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker asked Trump at a White House press briefing what Obama’s alleged crime was.
“Uh, Obamagate. It’s been going on for a long time,” Trump replied. “It’s been going on from before I even got elected, and it’s a disgrace that it happened, and if you look at what’s gone on, and if you look at now, all this information that’s being released — and from what I understand, that’s only the beginning — some terrible things happened, and it should never be allowed to happen in our country again.”
He told Fox Business network’s Maria Bartiromo that Obama “probably directed” security officials who “tried to take down the duly elected President of the United States.”
And he tweeted, “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.” He aimed the tweet at Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is investigating the Russian probe’s origins.
Obama’s response: “Vote.” Then, in two virtual graduation speeches last Saturday, he questioned Trump’s handling of the pandemic — without mentioning his name.
He told graduates of historically black colleges and universities the pandemic “has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that some of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge,” he added, a seeming reference to Trump’s assertion he bears no responsibility for COVID-19 testing failures.
Later, Obama told a nationally televised program honoring high school graduates the pandemic showed “A lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs” still favor “doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy.” That “is why things are so screwed up,” he said.
Trump’s twitter response: “OBAMAGATE.” On Sunday, he called Obama a “grossly incompetent” president.
With polls showing Trump lagging in key states, he is undoubtedly trying to fire up his conservative base. But he risks firing up Obama, who would like nothing better than to oust the man who would destroy his legacy.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: email@example.com.