In a Wall Street Journal interview a few weeks ago, Donald Trump lashed out at some FBI officials and suggested they may be guilty of "treason." When the interviewer tried to move on, the president wouldn't let it go, making two more references to "treasonous" acts.
Yesterday, Trump was in Ohio, ostensibly to talk about how impressed he is with his regressive tax plan, but the president strayed from his script and reflected on the partisan differences in how his State of the Union address was perceived.
"You're up there, you've got half the room going totally crazy, wild -- they loved everything, they want to do something great for our country. And you have the other side, even on positive news -- really positive news, like that -- they were like death and un-American. Un-American.
"Somebody said, 'treasonous.' I mean, yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn't seem to love our country very much."
For the right, the fact that Trump was "playing this for laughs," and using a "flippant" tone, made the rhetoric less offensive.
It's a tough sell. As Jon Chait put it, "It is totally beyond the pale for a president to describe the opposing party as having committed treason for failing to applaud his speech. It is the logic and rhetoric of authoritarianism in its purest form. But if Trump does it in the middle of a Don Rickles–style riff, does that make it better? Worse? Just weirder?"
Or put another way, if Barack Obama jokingly said Republicans committed treason by failing to respond with enthusiasm to one of his speeches, and the Democratic White House said it was just "tongue in cheek," would conservatives let it go? Or would it be Exhibit A in the "Obama's a Dictator" attack?
Whether one is inclined to laugh off the president's rhetoric or not, the broader context is striking. Trump is supposed to be working on preventing another government shutdown and negotiating a bipartisan agreement on immigration policy. Instead, he joshing about Democrats committing treason for failing to applaud his speech to Trump's satisfaction?
Indeed, in that same State of the Union address, the president said, "Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people."
Yeah, how's that working out?