WASHINGTON, D.C.: US President Donald Trump’s love-hate attitude towards predecessor Barack Obama goes back a decade, a volatile mixture of admiration and scurrilous disrespect that helped launch the provocative billionaire’s own political career.
Trump was a main purveyor of the “birther” conspiracy theory that the nation’s first African-American president was not born in the United States – and yet went out of his way to praise him after November’s bitterly contested election, even declaring last month that Obama “likes me” and “I like him.”
But the new president’s explosive and unsubstantiated charge this weekend that Obama tapped his phones, in a scandal he likened to “Nixon/Watergate” in a Twitter broadside, marked a brutal return to the belligerence of recent years.
Trump’s up-and-down treatment of Obama goes back to 2006, when the real estate tycoon was rising as a reality television star.
That December he told The New York Times that it was “not a good sign” that Obama, then a US senator, was involved in a shady deal with a controversial Chicago businessman.
“But he’s got some wonderful qualities,” Trump said of Obama.
For the next several months, as Obama mapped out his remarkable presidential run, Trump offered glowing praise, in March 2007 branding him “a star.”
The positive reviews continued after Obama won the 2008 election. But by April 2009 Trump was voicing concern about health care spending, inflation and taxes. One year later he was wavering on Obamacare, telling CNN “I’m really torn.”
Trump’s admiration turned to scorn, and he became a chief proponent of the racially charged conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the United States.
“Why doesn’t he show his birth certificate?” Trump asked on ABC’s “The View” show on March 23, 2011.
The Obama White House indeed produced the birth certificate a few weeks later – and the president went on to skewer Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner that April.
“No one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald,” Obama said, as Trump sat in the audience with a stiff smile on his face.
“And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like, did we fake the moon landing?”
Trump ‘strikes back’
Several observers say they believe the thin-skinned Trump decided then and there to seek his revenge.
Trump felt “attacked and embarrassed” by Obama’s jibes, Ohio State University political science professor Paul Beck told Agence France-Presse.
“He has personal reactions to almost everyone and everything,” Beck added. “If he feels he has been treated unfairly, he really strikes back.”
Trump dismissed speculation that the abuse by Obama that night spurred his presidential bid.
But Trump continued to gin up the birther conspiracy, even after it had been thoroughly debunked.
“An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud,” Trump tweeted in August 2012, at the height of the presidential race between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.
Obama pushed back that October, joking on NBC’s “Tonight Show” that the rivalry with Trump “dates back to when we were growing up together in Kenya.”
By 2016, with Trump having won the Republican nomination, the animosity was on full view – as Obama revved up his own attacks on the maverick candidate.
Trump “doesn’t appear to have basic knowledge around critical issues in Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, [which]means that he’s woefully unprepared to do this job,” Obama said on August 2.
Trump fired back on Twitter, saying Obama “will go down as perhaps the worst president in the history of the United States!”
In September Trump finally acknowledged Obama was born in the US state of Hawaii.
And two days after his widely unexpected victory, Trump met with Obama and described the outgoing president as “a very good man,” saying it was a “great honor” to meet with him at the White House.
Trump’s flip-flop fit his personality, Beck said.
When Obama treated him with respect and formality, “Trump was kind of smitten by that,” Beck said, noting that Trump was quick to curry favor with someone “if he thought it was in his interest.”
But since taking office – with an inaugural address that painted the Obama years as a dark era in which “there was little to celebrate” – Trump’s tone towards his predecessor has hardened.
Obama meanwhile broke his silence, 10 days after leaving the Oval Office, to voice his support for the wave of protests against Trump’s travel ban targeting refugees and citizens of Muslim-majority nations.
And any remaining doubts about the hostility between the 44th and 45th presidents were laid to rest by Trump’s wiretap allegations on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) – which Obama rejected via a spokesman as “simply false.”