Is 'Obamagate' a conspiracy theory? Or something more?

Plus, a question about COVID-19 policing.

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Today’s read: 12 minutes.

I dive into the Obamagate stuff, a question about COVID-19 policing in communities of color and some quick hits in the news. Plus, reader feedback.

DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos

Updates from yesterday.

Mitchell from Phoenix, Arizona, took issue with my short summary of Elon Musk resuming factory operations in California, saying I “used some vague and inflammatory language. Musk is defying a county law after receiving approval from the state government. Your comment made it seem like he's going against the state's orders, which is not true.” This is a good callout. To be clear: Musk has spoken to California Gov. Gavin Newsome and helped encourage the state to begin reopening its factories. Alameda County, where Tesla operates, has said Musk could not reopen without a county-approved plan. Musk says he will be on the factory line with his workers. You can read more about the story here and an op-ed supporting Musk here.

Also, I included a bad link in yesterday’s newsletter for the “Have a nice day” section. The proper link, about a huge solar project unfolding in Nevada, is here. Oh, and one final thing: some of you got the newsletter a couple of hours late yesterday. I had actually sent it at 11:58 a.m. (two minutes early!), but it was another day where the Substack email server seemed to be hitting some snags. There’s nothing I can do but ask for them to improve, and they said their engineering team is on it. Here’s to hoping.


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What D.C. is talking about.

Over the last few days, the term “Obamagate” has become a go-to rallying cry for President Donald Trump and his allies in the right-leaning media. Trump himself has been unable to define exactly what crime he’s accusing President Obama of, but many conservative politicians, pundits and reporters believe the Obama administration was part of a wide-reaching effort to damage the Trump administration on their way out the door. President Trump has claimed that Obama and former top-level officials in his administration will be prosecuted for crimes ranging from “entrapping” former national security adviser Michael Flynn to establishing the entire Russia-collusion, Robert Mueller investigation on a salacious and discredited dossier. Some pundits have claimed that “Obama must testify” over his actions. Many on the left have responded to these accusations by calling Obamagate a “conspiracy theory” and accusing Trump and his allies of living in an alternative reality — one where his administration made zero mistakes and did nothing to bring the Russia investigations onto themselves.


What the right is saying.

The gist of Obamagate is that Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and high-ranking intelligence officials conspired to undermine Trump by planting a phony conspiracy theory in the media that the campaign was working with Russia to win the 2016 election. Well-documented leaks from the FBI to the press support the fact the media was being fed bits and pieces of information that threw gas on the fire. The intelligence officials spied on the Trump campaign via Carter Page with warrants that withheld critical information and were based on a discredited dossier. National security adviser Susan Rice “unmasked” Trump campaign officials — or revealed their identities because they were caught up in electronic eavesdropping despite not being targets of an investigation. Barack Obama convened his national security team and instructed them to withhold information from the Trump campaign for fear of tipping them off to the investigation.

“It is not conspiracy-mongering to note that the investigation into Trump was predicated on an opposition-research document filled with fabulism and, most likely, Russian disinformation,” David Harsanyi wrote in the National Review. John Daniel Davidson wrote in The Federalist that this “unprecedented abuse of power” was “in effect an attempted coup.”

“The cast of characters—from high-ranking Obama administration officials to relative nobodies loosely associated with Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign—is long, as is the timeline of events. Details have come out slowly, in fits and starts, over the course of years. Following all the leaks and declassified transcripts and congressional hearings requires constant vigilance, and if you don’t keep up with it you can easily lose the thread.”

Never-Trump conservatives, an admittedly small minority, have rejected this notion. Tim Miller summed up their views in The Bulwark, writing that we should take Obamagate seriously — but only because it reveals the depths of the president’s conspiratorial mind and his media enablers:

There are a number of problems with this theory, though. The main ones being (a) when spelled out all in one place it is absurd on its face and (b) if anything, the supposed deep-staters’ actions in 2016 served to help Donald Trump politically, particularly in the final weeks of the election when the FBI reopened the investigation into their supposedly preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton and then absolved Donald Trump of the actions they were supposedly framing him of in the New York Times.


What the left is saying.

“Obamagate” and the premise behind it show how far off the deep end the right has gone. Michael Flynn did lie about his contacts with Russia, Trump did openly call for Russia to hack Clinton’s emails, the Democratic National Committee’s emails were hacked, Russia did interfere in the election to help Trump and members of the Trump campaign did have contacts with outlets like Wikileaks — who helped disseminate the DNC’s emails and damage Hillary Clinton. Many echo the sentiments from Tim Miller: if anything, the intelligence officials helped Trump by hurting Clinton, not the other way around.

Trump himself has been spewing this Obamagate nonsense for years — all the way back to when he first accused him of “wiretapping” his phones. But Monday, when asked directly what crime he was accusing Obama of, the president couldn’t produce an answer. “Obamagate, it’s been going on for a long time… you know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody,” was the best answer he could muster. The left also accuses the Fox News primetime hosts, websites like The Federalist and far-right media outlets like Breitbart of stoking these conspiracy theories by sharing contextless pieces of evidence with their readers and viewers. 


My take.

The rationale for Obama weighing whether to tell Trump about the Flynn investigation — or the FBI looking into the Trump administration — is rather obvious. If they were investigating whether his administration was colluding with Russia, why would they alert them? The main piece of evidence from the right about Obama’s role in this is an email of meeting notes Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice sent herself. “From a national security perspective, however, President Obama said he wants to be sure that, as we engage with the incoming team, we are mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia,” she wrote. This line has been published a lot on the right as “proof” Obama directed his administration to hide the investigation from Trump. It’s also true that the same email contained this line: “President Obama began the conversation by stressing his continued commitment to ensuring that every aspect of this issue is handled by the Intelligence and law enforcement communities ‘by the book.’”

Clearly, the president wanted the FBI to tell him if there was reason to believe the Trump administration couldn’t be trusted with national security information. That concern alone seems to lend credence to the idea that Obama wasn’t sure what he was dealing with — and that the forthcoming investigations were necessary.

Trump supporters have some valid points, though. It is true that the FBI spied on Trump campaign associate Carter Page using bogus FISA warrants. It’s also true that Susan Rice’s “unmasking” requests were predominantly focused on revealing the identity of Trump campaign members. It’s also true that the Obama administration discussed openly how to handle the Russia investigation and whether or not to share intelligence information with Trump. It’s also true that the media made a ton of mistakes and got out over their skis when discussing Russia collusion and the theories around it. And, of course, it’s true that Robert Mueller’s years-long investigation did not produce “smoking gun” evidence that there was coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian officials or Russian spies.

But other things are true, too. It’s true that the intelligence community is united in its assessment that Russian actors tried to manipulate the election in favor of Trump, via disinformation campaigns and leaks of hacked DNC emails, and that a Republican-led Senate review of those investigations supported that assessment. It’s true that Trump encouraged that campaign, even if it was in jest, and that members of his team helped amplify those disinformation campaigns. It’s true that Donald Trump Jr. welcomed a supposed offering of Hillary Clinton “dirt” from a Kremlin-linked lawyer even if it turned up nothing. It’s true that Susan Rice explained why she unmasked Trump campaign officials to House investigators, and that many Republicans found her explanation satisfactory. It’s true that Michael Flynn lied to FBI agents, even if the agents skirted standard protocol to conduct the interview. It’s also true that Robert Mueller’s investigation led to 199 criminal charges, 37 indictments or guilty pleas and five prison sentences. And that he said in his final report: "If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so."

I haven’t landed firmly in a spot yet, but I do think Obamagate narrative is riddled with baseless claims and overblown conspiracies. Miller’s piece in The Bulwark — and the links he provided — was the most convincing thing I’ve read yet. There’s still a lot of evidence trickling out, but for now the cacophony of overblown claims about Obama’s “crimes” are drowning out legitimate and important stories about the media and Obama administration mistakes that have made it easier for “Obamagate” to become headline news.


Quick hits.

Experts testifying before Congress painted a bleak picture about our COVID-19 future yesterday. Los Angeles County said its stay-at-home orders will remain until July and the California state university system canceled in-person classes for the fall of 2020. Armed militia in Michigan helped a barbershop open against state orders while moderate Republicans who want to end the stay-at-home orders fear the militia, and protesters like them, are destroying their credibility. The Supreme Court seemed skeptical of an effort to obtain Trump’s financial records, setting up the possibility of a split decision to get Trump’s tax returns. The judge in the Michael Flynn case did not immediately accept the Justice Department’s motion to drop the case, and instead used a brief order to open the case for outside parties to present further arguments. Republicans picked up two big wins yesterday with an election win in Wisconsin and a California Republican inching closer to flipping a Democratic seat in California.


Your questions, answered.

Reminder: reader questions is one of my favorite parts of Tangle. If you have something you want to see in the newsletter, simply reply to this email and write in. I’ll try to get to it as soon as I can.

Q: I saw the Shaun King Twitter post today about police response in Brooklyn when a black man was choked and slammed to the ground in response to the people in the neighborhood going outside to enjoy nice weather. It is hard to make out what is going on in the video, but over-policing and violent, disproportionate reaction to people of color is nothing new. It seems the overall sentiment is that the new restrictions are being used to further limit the rights and freedoms of black and brown citizens, and that in predominantly white or affluent neighborhoods, the response is vastly different. In his words, “the @NYPD & @NYCMayor are really just using it as an excuse to brutalize and beat and maul and humiliate Black people everywhere.⁣” I'm wondering if there is any solid information on how COVID-19 and the subsequential restrictions are impacting communities of color and lower-income areas specifically, and what your take is on the government and police response towards minorities and those who need support the most right now. 

—Summer, Los Angeles, California

Tangle: The question of how citizens’ rights are being impacted during COVID-19 lockdown is one that has largely been framed through the lens of conservative protesters on the right. Gatherings at state courthouses, the president tweeting for folks to “liberate” their states, images of gun-wielding folks storming legislative buildings — all of that has been in the national media. But, so far, it seems as though there are far more people “at-risk” of over-policing and civil liberty violations in urban areas across America. I am going to focus on New York City for a few reasons: data is still premature nationally but we have some here, we are the center of the epidemic, and I know the city intimately and can tie in my own personal experience. NYC is also at the center of the question you’re asking.

First, regarding Shaun King: it’s hard to make out exactly what’s going on in the video, but it does look like a rather violent and unnecessary arrest. Still, it’s just 40 seconds long and we have no real context — so I want to be careful not to pass judgment in one way or the other. I know Shaun via the internet and he has shared my writing before when it aligns with his political views. We’ve exchanged some direct messages occasionally, and a few years ago he helped me identify the “attorney in the racist rant” video from a Fresh Kitchen in New York City — (I knew the guy because he had actually harassed me a year earlier, Shaun helped get the story attention).

I don’t know Shaun personally, but I will note two things: 1) On several occasions, he’s stoked tensions with misleading videos and has repeatedly doxxed the wrong people. Some view him as unethical. 2) Other black activists have also accused him of a series of violations big and small — from shady funding practices to frivolous lawsuits to gross social media stuff. All this is to just acknowledge that the name “Shaun King” comes with a lot of baggage and means many different things to many different people.

So, to take this beyond Shaun, there has been solid reporting about the impact of COVID-19 on policing in communities of color and low-income areas. Perhaps most shared was the violent arrest of Donni Wright in New York City that led to an officer being taken off patrol duty. Officers on the case justified that arrest by saying they were breaking up a corner of activity where people were “walking by, milling about” and not wearing masks. It came after a video of a separate incident, involving officers violently arresting a group of three men of color, broke and was shared widely. The arresting officers were a few of the thousands who have been dispatched to enforce social distancing rules.

Unfortunately, the early data does not look good. In New York City the Brooklyn district attorney’s office released data on social distancing enforcement. It was the first dataset we’ve gotten (and the only one I could find) released by an individual borough. 35 of the 40 people who were arrested for violating social distancing rules, as of May 7th, were black. Four were Hispanic. One was white. As of May 7th, citywide, there were about 120 arrests and 500 summonses for social distancing violations, according to deputy police commissioner Richard Esposito. Of those arrested, 68% were black and 24% were Hispanic and just 7% were white.

For its part, the NYPD has said it’s officers are using arrests and summons sparingly, and only in the case of people who won’t disperse. Given that there have been just 120 arrests after two months of lockdown in a city of millions of people, I think that’s probably true. I also would not want to be a police officer right now. Tensions are high in the city, people are pissed off, the job is dangerous because you’re being constantly exposed, and nobody wants to be a cop, see a cop or interact with a cop in today’s environment. But they are still out there every day in a high-stress situation, and I think that’s worth acknowledging. It’s also important to note that police officers hate these social distancing rules and don’t want to enforce them either. That doesn’t get talked about enough, but thepolice unions in NYC are literally begging their bossesto stop the social distancing enforcement.

Still, this dataset paints an ugly picture. And it’s exactly what black and Hispanic activists warned about. It’s what immigrant activists warned about. They all saw this coming from a mile away. The photos of white people in wealthier Brooklyn neighborhoods rolling around on top of each other in the park have gotten laughs, while we’ve now seen several videos of black or Hispanic people being physically and violently arrested for doing the same thing in their own neighborhoods. As someone “on the ground here,” I want to be clear: every kind of person is flouting the social distancing rules (occasionally). Rich, poor, orthodox Jews, Muslims, white and black and everything in between. Everyone. You can’t help it. And yes, I have gone out in wealthier neighborhoods and seen hordes of people near each other in the park, waiting in line for an iced coffee, playing in the dog parks, and so on. The social distancing enforcement in those areas amounts to park officers handing out masks. That is not how it’s going down in other parts of New York.

It’s also hard to avoid. You step outside on your porch to get some fresh air and a neighbor stops to say hi. Then another sees two people talking and chimes in. All of a sudden three or four people are congregating on the sidewalk to chat, something you haven’t done in two weeks. Someone grabs a beer. Someone grabs a chair. The music comes on. That’s just New York City — it’s happening in every neighborhood. But many of these people are still wearing masks, keeping their distance, etc. I think New Yorkers are being extraordinarily patient and obedient given the parameters of our new life, but just about everyone needs a little social contact every now and then. It’s really difficult for me to imagine any justification for the events in the videos above, and it’s even more frustrating to see that it’s predominantly to people of color being arrested when every race and creed is violating the social distancing rules.

On a final personal note, I’ll just say this: over-policing in New York has been well-documented in every single paper, by numerous scholars, journalists and activists, and in dozens of books. I’m not going to be able to recap the ugly history in New York City here, but I do think this reeks of a continuation of that kind of enforcement. I’ll also say that you can’t understand what over-policing is like until you experience it yourself.

I’m white, but I lived in a predominantly black and Hispanic Harlem neighborhood for four years where there seemed to be a police officer for every square foot. It’s suffocating, even when you’re not doing anything wrong. Especially when you’re not doing anything wrong. Everything feels tense, everyone feels watched, your space feels in a constant state of anxiety — because the presence of cops alone means something is supposed to be wrong. It’s like having someone looking over your shoulder while you eat, while you type on the computer, while you read your phone, constantly breathing hot air on your neck. And those are just the officers you see. Then, occasionally, sirens go off or someone commits a crime or an argument happens on the street and you see all these normal, non-cop looking people transform into officers, pulling badges out from under their shirts or brandishing firearms, and you realize quickly that for every cop you see there is another you don’t — a plainclothes officer roaming the street. I can’t really explain how anxiety-inducing that is even for me, a white guy who was walking those streets without any real threat of being profiled or unjustly arrested or treated unfairly.

So take those realities that exist for people of color in neighborhoods across New York, across every city in America, and then consider that you can now be arrested or summoned for the crime of sitting down with your neighbors without a face mask on. It’s horrifying, really. That’s why both cops and citizens don’t want this reality. And, if this data is any indication, the harshest enforcement is already happening in neighborhoods where that anxiety and tension and the broken relationships between officers and citizens already exists. 


A story that matters.

April saw the sharpest increase in grocery store prices in nearly 50 years as many staples of the grocery store aisles continue to disappear. Consumers paid 4.3% more for meats, poultry, fish and eggs, The Washington Post reported. Fruits and vegetables were up 1.5% and cereals and bakery products were up 2.9%. The price jumps come as 20 million Americans lost their jobs and one in five households say they are experiencing food insecurity. Meanwhile, some items are still missing from the shelves. My research assistant Seth reports shortages aren’t limited to toilet paper or oat milk. “Baking supplies like yeast and flour, chicken nuggets, pasta and bread have also been in short supply. The culprits are unpredictable shifts in demand, limited production capacity, and disruptions to the supply chains.” The Washington Post has the story in price increases here and The New York Times has the story on missing items here.


Numbers.

  • 4.2%. The United States share of the world’s population, according to WorldOMeter.

  • 28.4%. The United States share of the world’s reported coronavirus deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

  • 3%. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump in Wisconsin, according to new polling

  • 1,815. The length, in pages, of Democrats’ new $3 trillion coronavirus package.

  • 58%. The percentage of Americans who say that the federal government is not doing enough to prevent a second wave of coronavirus.

  • 215,645. The TSA’s traveler count for May 11, 2020

  • 2,512,315. The TSA’s traveler count on the same day 1 year ago.


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Have a nice day.

If you want to boost your immune system during coronavirus lockdown, there’s one good way to do it: human connection. Research shows that loneliness and isolation are associated with negative health risks. “But there’s also hope in the data,” WaPo reports. Interactions with strangers, looking at photos of someone you love, video chatting with friends and family can all reduce physical systems of stress — and thus boost your mood and immune system. Small actions that make you feel connected to or supported by your social networks are more valuable than ever. Take them. Click.