In the not-too-distant past, if a sitting American president accused a congressional leader of treason, it would’ve caused a political earthquake. And for good reason: while assorted partisans trade barbs and insults every day, treason is a capital offense.
But in the Donald Trump era, Americans have arrived at a point in which presidential accusations of treason have become nonsensical background noise.
Last night, for example, referring to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Trump declared via Twitter, “I want Schiff questioned at the highest level for Fraud & Treason.” The Republican added this morning:
“Rep. Adam Schiff illegally made up a FAKE & terrible statement, pretended it to be mine as the most important part of my call to the Ukrainian President, and read it aloud to Congress and the American people. It bore NO relationship to what I said on the call. Arrest for Treason?”
Some context is probably in order. During a hearing last week, Schiff used some paraphrases of Trump during some public remarks, some of which were obviously intended to deride the scandal-plagued president, which apparently made the president a little hysterical.
At no point has the Intelligence Committee chairman committed fraud or treason – two words Trump uses quite a bit without knowing what they mean.
To be sure, there’s nothing to suggest Schiff will be “questioned at the highest level” or “arrested” for anything, and if Attorney General Bill Barr’s Justice Department were to seriously go after the congressman in response to the latest presidential tantrum, the broader scandal would take an even more scandalous turn.
But that doesn’t make Trump’s unhinged rhetoric any less ridiculous. Presidents are not supposed to casually throw around treason accusations whenever they’re in a bad mood.
Before he raised the prospect of arresting the House Intelligence Committee chairman for treason, Trump last week accused White House officials who spoke to the intelligence community whistleblower – possible witnesses to presidential wrongdoing – of treason.
As we discussed soon after, this came on the heels of the president raising the prospect of a treason investigation into Google, which came on the heels of Trump accusing some in federal law enforcement of “treason,” which came a month after the Republican accused congressional Democrats of engaging in “treasonous” behavior.
As regular readers know, these weren’t isolated incidents. Last year, the New York Times published a rather extraordinary op-ed, written by “a senior official in the Trump administration,” describing a White House in which “many” officials work diligently behind the scenes to subvert Donald Trump. The president suggested the newspaper may have committed “treason” by agreeing to run it.
A few months before that, the president was so bothered by media coverage of his summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un that he described the reports as “really almost treasonous.”
And a few months before that, while whining that Democrats failed to applaud his State of the Union address to his satisfaction, the president said Dems “certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much” – and then raised the prospect of Democratic “treason.”
For many conservatives, “judicial activism” has become a shorthand for “court rulings the right doesn’t like,” just as “socialism” became synonymous with “proposals Republicans oppose.” But when Trump decides “treason” means “things that make the president look bad,” it’s not a healthy development for our political system.