How a pair of Donald Trump tweets created an 'Obamagate' domino effect in the Senate

Analysis: It took less than 48 hours for two key Senate Republicans to answer president's call to step up their 'Obamagate' plans and rhetoric

Griffin Connolly
Tuesday 19 May 2020 22:55 BST
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All it took was a couple of tweets for Donald Trump and top Senate Republicans to get on the same page for the president’s chief messaging strategy ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

When Mr Trump fired off a pair of messages over the weekend urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham to shore up their resources to probe his “Obamagate” theory, it took less than 48 hours for the duo to answer the call.

On Monday, Mr Graham announced that his committee would vote in early June to authorise subpoenas for a raft of Obama-era (and some Trump-era) intelligence and national security officials, including former FBI Director James Comey; his successor, Christopher Wray; former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates; former CIA Director John Brennan, and more than four dozen others.

On Tuesday, Mr McConnell signalled his full-throated support of Mr Graham’s plans for the “serious” slate of subpoenas “so the Senate can hear directly from key players” whom Republicans have alleged abused the intelligence system to unfairly target 2016 Trump campaign aides and incoming Trump administration officials in January 2017.

“No matter what some Washington Democrats may try to claim, you are not crazy or a conspiracy theorist if you see a pattern of institutional unfairness towards this president. You would have to be blind not to see one,” Mr McConnell said.

Chain of events

Here’s how we got to this point.

Last Thursday, Mr McConnell gave an interview to Fox News’ Brett Baier in which the majority leader clearly either felt uncomfortable or ill-equipped to answer questions about Obamagate and the “unmasking” of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.

When asked if he agreed with Mr Trump that Mr Obama should testify about the FBI’s 2016 counterintelligence probe into possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, Mr McConnell deferred such decisions to Mr Graham.

“I think he may have addressed that already. I'm not certain,” Mr McConnell said.

Mr Baier informed Mr McConnell that Mr Graham said he would be uncomfortable calling a former president to testify, arguing that it could plunge the Judiciary panel’s probe into a legal quagmire over questions of executive privilege.

When asked how the committee should proceed with its investigation, Mr McConnell again deferred to Mr Graham.

“That’ll be up to Chairman Graham to determine how to handle this. I have a lot of confidence in him, and he knows what he's doing, and I'm going to follow his lead,” Mr McConnell said.

Mr McConnell’s interview with Mr Baier prompted an outcry of protest from conservative pundits that the Senate Republican brass was not pushing back hard enough on the FBI’s and former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s conduct during their respective Russia probes.

The interview was “a tremendous disappointment,” conservative columnist Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist wrote on Friday in an article headlined, “Memo To Mitch McConnell: You Won’t Get Judges If You Don’t Hold Resistance Accountable For Russia Hoax.”

Federalist co-founder Sean Davis tweeted out the link to Ms Hemingway’s column with an accompanying message accusing Mr McConnell of spending “years pretending as though the Russian collusion hoax never happened” and saying the majority leader has “lost his mind” if he thinks he can retain the GOP majority without pursuing the Obamagate theory with full force.

On Saturday, the president retweeted Mr Davis with a message of his own.

“Mitch, I love you, but this is 100% true. Time is running out. Get tough and move quickly, or it will be too late. The Dems are vicious, but got caught. They MUST pay a big price for what they have done to our Country. Don’t let them get away with this!” Mr Trump wrote, tagging Mr Graham’s Twitter account.

Long time coming

Make no mistake: Senate Republicans, including Mr Graham, had already been leaning hard into investigations into the president’s Obamagate theory, even before Mr Trump coined the term.

That’s despite a report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz that found no evidence of political bias in the FBI’s conduct of its 2016 counterintelligence operation but did highlight several flaws in some applications for surveillance warrants.

Last week, Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — who are investigating Hunter Biden's business ties in Ukraine — released a National Security Agency (NSA) letter showing some Obama officials had sought “unmasking” documents that revealed Michael Flynn was on the other side of wiretapped communications. (He is the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.)

On Wednesday, Mr Grassley and Mr Johnson released a declassified email from Mr Obama's last national security adviser, Susan Rice, on 20 January 2017 that provides a summary of a meeting between Mr Obama and top intelligence officials regarding Mr Flynn’s communications with then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak.

Last week, Mr Graham announced a three-phase investigation scheduled to play out in public hearings starting in early June regarding the FBI’s 2016 counterintelligence operation and the subsequent special counsel probe.

Those phases will address:

  • The Obama administration's unmasking requests;
  • Alleged abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by FBI agents over the course of their 2016 investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia;
  • Whether Mr Mueller should have been appointed to continue the Russian election interference probe.

Mr Graham has said he plans to release findings of his various probes in October, just in time for them to marinate during the final weeks leading up to the 3 November election.

Democratic pushback

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York accused Mr McConnell on Tuesday of abetting a “wild conspiracy theory” to appease an out-of-control president as Republicans attempt to “to re-write the history of Russian interference in the 2016 election to match the fantasy in President Trump’s head.”

Mr Schumer urged Mr McConnell to halt the investigations and turn his committees’ attention towards legislation and oversight to aid the coronavirus response.

Such demands, though, are likely to fall on deaf ears so long as Mr Trump keeps up the pressure.

He shows no signs of letting up.

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