In a textbook example of denial and projection, Trump foes in and out of government wove a sinister yarn meant to take him down.
Barack Obama keeps a close watch on his emotions. “I loved Spock,” he wrote in February 2015 in a presidential statement eulogizing Leonard Nimoy. Growing up in Hawaii, the young man who would later be called “No-Drama Obama” felt a special affinity for the Vulcan first officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise. “Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy,” the eulogy continued. “Leonard was Spock. Cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed.”
It is the rare occasion when Obama lets his Spock mask slip. But November 2, 2016, was just such a moment. Six days before the presidential election, when addressing the Congressional Black Caucus, he stressed that the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, threatened hard-won achievements of blacks: tolerance, justice, good schools, ending mass incarceration — even democracy itself. “There is one candidate who will advance those things,” he said, his voice swelling with emotion. “And there’s another candidate whose defining principle, the central theme of his candidacy, is opposition to all that we’ve done.”
The open display of emotion was new, but the theme of safeguarding his legacy was not. Two months earlier, on July 5, in Charlotte, N.C., Obama delivered his first stump speech for Hillary Clinton. He described his presidency as a leg in a relay race. Hillary Clinton had tried hard to pass affordable health care during Bill Clinton’s administration, but she failed — and the relay baton fell to the ground. When Obama entered the White House, he picked it up. Now, his leg of the race was coming to an end. “I’m ready to pass the baton,” he said. “And I know that Hillary Clinton is going to take it.”
But he was less certain than he was letting on. Hillary Clinton was up in the polls, to be sure, but she was vulnerable. Three weeks earlier, on June 15, a cyberattacker fashioning himself as Guccifer 2.0 had published a cache of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee (DNC). They proved, as supporters of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders had long alleged, that the DNC had conspired with the Clinton campaign to undermine their candidate. Sanders was still withholding his endorsement of Clinton for president, even though her nomination as the Democratic candidate was now a foregone conclusion. At the very moment when Clinton had expected the Democratic party to unite behind her, its deepest chasm seemed to be growing wider. In contrast to Clinton, Obama held some sway over the Sanders insurgents. He came to Charlotte to urge them to support Clinton against their shared enemy, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump.
The insurgency was not the only Clinton vulnerability on Obama’s mind. He had come to Charlotte, in addition, to deflect attention from the news conference that James Comey, the director of the FBI, had held that morning in Washington, D.C. The investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server was complete, Comey announced. The FBI would recommend no criminal charges — that was the honey. But Comey administered it with a dose of vinegar. He dwelled on Clinton’s mishandling of classified material in such detail that it sounded as if he was laying the foundation for an indictment. The decision not to charge Clinton, his statement signaled, was an exercise in prosecutorial restraint, not a true exoneration.
From the perspective of the voters, Clinton’s twin email travails — the hack of the DNC and the investigation into her server — were two faces of a single problem. Call it “Clinton, Inc.” Sanders and Trump were painting Clinton as Wall Street’s darling, the establishment candidate. She was the greatest defender and a prime beneficiary of a rigged political and financial system. Comey’s statement had played directly into the hands of the Sanders insurgents. It left the distinct impression that laws are for the little people; they simply don’t apply to Hillary Clinton, because, well, she’s Hillary Clinton.
Which points to Obama’s third and final job at Charlotte: humanizing the queen. “I saw how she treated everybody with respect, even the folks who aren’t, quote/unquote, ‘important,’” Obama testified. He enlarged Clinton’s humility before the crowd, because it was invisible to the naked eye. With his jacket and tie off, the cuffs of his sleeves turned, and a winning smile spread from ear to ear, Obama came to loan Hillary Clinton his common touch.
Passing the baton to her was a team effort, however. It demanded hard work from countless enablers. These included not just Democrats but also many Republicans, who shared the conviction that Trump represented an extraordinary threat to our democracy. Desperate times call for desperate measures. To block Trump, Clinton’s supporters bent rules and broke laws. They went to surprising lengths to strengthen her while framing him — both in the sense of depicting him in a particular light and of planting evidence against him.