Democrats on Thursday said that president Donald Trump, in attempting to turn his “Obamagate” theory into an attack on his presumptive Democratic challenger, was once again abusing the powers of his office to smear his political opponents.
But they expressed hope that Joe Biden, who has endured a fusillade of attacks from Mr Trump over the past two years, would not get bogged down by it.
The claims from Mr Trump and his allies are not fully rooted in the facts, as he attempts to tag Mr Biden with being behind efforts to obtain reports that included the name of the national security adviser, Michael Flynn, whose communications had been captured during US surveillance of foreign officials.
“He’s flailing around. The whole thing is crazy,” said Neera Tanden, a former top adviser to Hillary Clinton who now leads the Center for American Progress. “Whatever you want to say about the attacks on Biden, they have not been working. So we just have a new one. The Biden campaign should just state the facts and move on.
“Trump has an insatiable appetite for lying. And the more the media responds to this, the more he’ll just keep lying,” she added.
David Plouffe, a former adviser to president Barack Obama who at times has been critical of Mr Biden’s campaign, said Mr Trump was creating a dangerous diversion.
“Our current President is calling for his predecessor and his current challenger to be jailed. In America,” Mr Plouffe wrote on Twitter. “It’s not clever political tactics – it’s unprecedented and sick.”
Mr Trump was impeached by the Democratic-led House – and acquitted by the Republican-run Senate – as a result of his request that the Ukrainian president investigate Mr Biden and his son Hunter for the latter’s role on the board of a gas company.
In responding to Mr Trump, Mr Biden’s campaign has often tried to aggressively combat misinformation while not allowing Mr Trump to dictate the terms of the conversation. It has taken solace in the fact that he still won the nomination and that Mr Trump’s attempts to damage him have not been reflected in polls, which have given Mr Biden an edge.
Some Democrats still privately worry about the Biden campaign’s ability to respond to the attacks from Mr Trump. While Mr Biden remains a distrusted figure among partisan media on the left and right, Mr Trump maintains control over – and demands fealty from – conservative media outlets that can turn even a small spark into a large brushfire.
Central to Republican attacks this week was a newly declassified list that included Mr Biden among several dozen Obama administration officials who may have had access to intelligence reports that named Mr Flynn.
The newly released document says that all standard procedures were followed as part of the process known as “unmasking,” a routine practice that occurs if top officials can show they need to know the name of Americans or legal residents interacting with foreigners targeted by spy agencies.
It notes that while the officials on the list had access to the report, “we cannot confirm they saw the unmasked information.” Mr Biden is listed as having had access to the information – not necessarily as one who requested it – and there is no indication that he read it or knew about it.
Nonetheless, Mr Trump and his supporters this week spoke of the list as though the Democratic presidential hopeful was caught conspiring to commit wrongdoing.
“It’s troubling in many ways,” Senator Rand Paul, Republican for Kentucky, said. “We sort of have the smoking gun because we now have the declassified document with Joe Biden’s name on it.”
Mr Trump, who began tweeting about “Obamagate” last weekend, pointed at Mr Biden almost immediately after the list became public.
“This was all Obama. This was all Biden,” Mr Trump told Fox Business on Wednesday. “These people were corrupt. The whole thing was corrupt. And we caught them. We caught them.”
Mr Flynn has emerged as a focal point for pro-Trump conservatives in recent weeks as part of an effort to undo his 2017 guilty plea for lying to FBI investigators who were asking him about his conversations with Sergey Kislyak when Kislyak was the Russian ambassador. Mr Trump fired Mr Flynn, who pleaded guilty but now argues that he was entrapped as part of an effort orchestrated by the Obama administration.
The attacks on Mr Biden come as the likely Democratic nominee has been leading Mr Trump in polls and the president has been under fire for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Biden’s campaign on Thursday declined to say whether Mr Biden himself made the request that resulted in Mr Flynn being identified. Rather, campaign spokesman Andrew Bates pointed to the widespread concerns at the time regarding Mr Flynn’s actions.
“These documents simply indicate the breadth and depth of concern across the American government – including among career officials – over intelligence reports of Michael Flynn’s attempts to undermine ongoing American national security policy through discussions with Russian officials or other foreign representatives,” Mr Bates said in a statement.
“Importantly, none of these individuals could have known Flynn’s identity beforehand,” he added. “These documents have absolutely nothing to do with any FBI investigation and they confirm that all normal procedures were followed – any suggestion otherwise is a flat out lie.”
The newly released document with Biden’s name was declassified this week by Mr Trump’s acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell. The document listed about 40 Obama administration officials who, between 8 November 2016, and the end of the administration, had access to reports that identified Mr Flynn, rather than keeping his name redacted.
The document said that 16 individuals had made an unmasking request, which resulted in Mr Flynn’s name being revealed. Mr Biden is listed as one of those who had access to the report, but it is unclear if he was the one who made the request or if someone did it on his behalf.
The request for Mr Biden to see the information came on 12 January 2017, an active day for him. It was eight days before leaving office, and Mr Biden was preparing for his last foreign trip as vice president, heading to Ukraine and Switzerland. It was a day when Mr Obama would surprisingly bestow the Medal of Freedom on him and also a day when Mr Biden would confirm that he and Mr Obama had been briefed the week before on what would become the infamous dossier on President-elect Trump.
Inside the Obama administration, there had been growing concern for weeks about contacts between incoming Trump administration officials and foreign governments.
At the time, there were constant reports and rising fears among national security officials about what was emerging from contacts between various Trump officials and foreign governments.
Republicans this week also pointed to Mr Biden’s interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” in which he appeared to say he had been unaware of the investigation into Mr Flynn. They noted that, according to testimony that came out during the Mueller investigation, Mr Biden, Mr Obama and other officials had been present for a 5 January 2017, White House meeting in which Mr Flynn came up.
“I know nothing about those moves to investigate Michael Flynn,” Mr Biden told ABC initially in the Tuesday interview, before turning towards Mr Trump and the coronavirus. “This is all about diversion. This is a game this guy plays all the time.”
When George Stephanopoulos pressed Mr Biden, pointing out that he was at the 5 January 2017 meeting with Obama where the topic came up.
“No, I thought you asked me whether or not I had anything to do with him being prosecuted,” Mr Biden said. “I’m sorry.
“I was aware that there was – that they asked for an investigation, but that’s all I know about it, and I don’t think anything else – look. Think about this. Can you imagine any other president of the United States focusing on this at the moment when the country is just absolutely concerned about their health, the health of their children?”
The Washington Post
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