The Trump administration has escalated its feud with the Obama administration, creating a virtually unprecedented situation in which the current and former U.S. executive branches are openly fighting.
President Trump on Wednesday said Obama-era national security adviser Susan Rice might have committed a crime by requesting the identities of Trump associates who were incidentally swept up in surveillance, though he cited no evidence to back up his claim.
“I think it’s going to be the biggest story,” Trump told The New York Times. “It’s such an important story for our country and the world. It is one of the big stories of our time.”
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser under former President Barack Obama and Rice, quickly fired back, stating that attacking Rice “for doing what countless officials of both parties have done is authoritarianism.”
“Media shouldn’t enable this garbage,” he added.
The attack on Rice, a lightning rod on the right who was a trusted confidante for the former president, is just the latest flashpoint between the administrations.
Trump and his staff have made it clear that they think Obama administration officials have been complicit in widespread leaks of damaging intelligence about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election and possible links between Moscow and Trump’s associates.
The president in early March accused Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower, a claim that has been repeatedly debunked and that the White House has since walked back.
It’s a striking shift from November, when Obama and Trump met at the White House and Obama pledged that he and his aides would ensure a smooth transition. Trump also offered kind words for Obama, suggesting the two might confer from time to time.
That hasn’t happened. In March, The Hill reported that Obama and Trump haven’t exchanged words since Inauguration Day.
And the fighting goes far beyond Rice and Russia.
Trump and the White House on Tuesday blamed a deadly gas attack in Syria’s civil war on Obama’s policies, statements that appeared to put more blame on the previous administration than on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.
The new administration’s focus in office has been revoking Obama-era regulations, and its main legislative goal has been to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature legislative achievement.
Obama aides have been all over Twitter attacking Trump, augmenting the sense that the two administrations are now at war.
Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the National Security Council under Obama, tweeted Wednesday that Trump is a “serial liar” who has “changed his story on wiretapping 3 times.”
Some tension between administrations is hardly unusual.
Obama often blamed the poor economy he inherited on President George W. Bush and repeatedly criticized that administration’s foreign policy.
Bush administration officials believed that President Clinton failed to confront al Qaeda in the lead-up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, while Bush himself spoke about how Clinton left him a recession.
President Reagan frequently criticized President Carter’s handling of the economy, prompting Carter to respond in 1982 that his administration “did not spend four years blaming our mistakes on our predecessors.”
But a confluence of events makes today’s tensions feel like nothing the country has seen before: Russia’s meddling in the election, the nature of Trump’s accusations, his penchant for combat, the rise of social media and the fact that much of Trump’s agenda involves rolling back Obama-era laws and regulations.
Obama so far has not attacked Trump despite pleas from some Democrats for him to jump into the fight.
But the unusual circumstances of Obama’s post-presidency might lead him to speak out. He put out a statement two weeks ago defending his healthcare law against Republican efforts to repeal it.
His spokesman also published a statement one week after he left office cheering protests against Trump’s travel ban.
A source close to Obama says the president is reluctant to join the fray.
“It’s not in anyone’s interest ... for [Obama] to become the face of the resistance or narrate the Trump presidency,” the source said. “He’s acutely aware that when he speaks, he sucks up all the oxygen, and that suppresses the next generation of leaders from rising.”
As the GOP attacks intensify on specific members of Obama’s administration, however, it could be more difficult for the former president to disengage.
Trump’s attacks on Rice in particular risk drawing Obama in, since they step up the debate over whether the previous administration sought to harm its successor through intelligence leaks.
Trump’s tendency to point the finger at Obama might energize the GOP base, which still has a low opinion of the former president.
But there are also risks.
Republicans often scolded Obama for blaming the recession and sluggish economy on Bush.
So it was notable on Wednesday when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a rival of Trump’s in the GOP presidential primaries, warned Trump about blaming Obama.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that I disagreed with many of the decisions made by the Obama administration on foreign policy, but that presidency’s over; we have a new presidency,” Rubio told reporters.
Brandon Rottinghaus, a presidential historian at the University of Houston, said the president’s willingness to cast blame on Obama could backfire and make Trump look weak.
“If you’re still blaming the old administration, it means you don’t have better ideas. You just have the microphone,” he said.
Still, Obama’s “red line” threat against the Syrian government is among the most widely criticized comments of his eight years in office.
Trump at a Wednesday press conference acknowledged he is responsible for how the government reacts to the chemical weapons attack in Syria.
He again faulted Obama for not taking military action in Syria even though he previously urged him not to do so.
“I inherited a mess,” Trump said, returning to a familiar refrain. “Whether it’s the Middle East, whether it’s North Korea, whether it’s so many other things, whether it’s in our country horrible, trade deals. I inherited a mess. We’re going to fix it.”