As Impeachment Moves Forward, Trump’s Language Turns Darker

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s language has changed in the days since House Democrats began their impeachment inquiry.

The presidential Twitter feed still has its share of complaints about the Federal Reserve, punch-back nicknames and favorable polls from friends such as Breitbart. But now Mr. Trump also talks about the civil war that could break out if impeachment proceedings against him continue, a whistle-blower he regards as a spy and, increasingly, treason.

His main targets have been the whistle-blower and Representative Adam B. Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. And he has used the word more than a dozen times on Twitter, beginning last September when he castigated The New York Times for publishing an Op-Ed article written by an anonymous administration official that questioned the president’s ability to govern.

The last time an American was convicted of treason was in the 1940s, in part because the Constitution defines it narrowly as levying war against the United States or giving aid or comfort to an enemy during wartime. But as the impeachment inquiry unfolds, Mr. Trump has used the term to accuse people of disloyalty and signal to his supporters that his political opponents are un-American.

The accusation is nothing new in the right-wing vocabulary — Ann Coulter, the president’s sometimes adviser, sometimes adversary — wrote a book on the topic. Mark S. Zaid, a Washington lawyer who represents the whistle-blower, reviewed the book in 2003, saying it contained revelations that would “shock anyone to the left of Attila the Hun.”

But experts see a civic danger in the president frequently and falsely calling out what he labels treasonous behavior. Carlton F.W. Larson, a professor at the University of California at Davis School of Law and an expert on treason, said the president had cheapened the word through overuse.

“It is a complete debasement of political discourse where ordinary political disagreements are elevated to a level of capital crime,” Mr. Larson said. “If Trump ever did uncover an instance of true treason, no one would believe him because he has so debased the meaning of that word.”

Mr. Trump first mentioned treason in connection with the whistle-blower last week in a talk at the United States Mission to the United Nations, contending that what the whistle-blower was doing was spying and lamenting that there used to be a punishment for that, presumably meaning execution.

“I want to know who’s the person who gave the whistle-blower the information, because that’s close to a spy,” Mr. Trump said. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? With spies and treason, right? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”

But what seems to have most provoked the president was Mr. Schiff’s opening statement at a House Intelligence Committee hearing last week when he gave his own interpretation of Mr. Trump’s July phone call with the Ukrainian president as a mobster issuing a veiled threat — and the president did not like it.

“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,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Monday. “It bore NO relationship to what I said on the call. Arrest for Treason?”

This was just one outcome Mr. Trump said he wanted. A day earlier, the president said Mr. Schiff should be “questioned at the highest level for Fraud & Treason.” On Tuesday, he added that the congressman should be charged with making a false statement.

“Oftentimes he uses a bazooka to swat a fly,” Christopher Ruddy, a friend of Mr. Trump’s and the chief executive of Newsmax Media, said in an interview, adding that he would like to see the president behave more “above the fray.”

But Mr. Ruddy said he understood why the president had done it. “I think he sees the allegations against him as hyperbolic, so he responds back hyperbolically,” Mr. Ruddy said.

Erin Perrine, a spokeswoman for the president’s re-election campaign, put it another way. “For two years Democrats and the media falsely accused President Trump of being a Russian agent,” she said. “It makes it difficult to take Democrats’ feelings being hurt seriously.”

Still, over the past year, Mr. Trump has accused the Democrats of treason for opposing his immigration policies, and The Times again for reporting on cyberattacks in Russia. In May, he accused unnamed individuals of spying on his presidential campaign — an accusation he has levied at the Obama administration. Mr. Trump has used the phrase so often that it was a line of questioning at a news conference at the White House that month, when a journalist reminded Mr. Trump that treason was punishable by death.

Mr. Trump nodded, then listed several people he believed had engaged in treasonous behavior, including James B. Comey, the former director of the F.B.I.; Andrew G. McCabe, the former acting F.B.I. director; and Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, both former F.B.I. officials.

Mr. Trump also said that “probably people higher than that” had participated in an effort to undermine his election, alluding to claims he has made that Obama administration officials, and perhaps President Barack Obama himself, had participated in an effort to spy on his campaign.

All of the people Mr. Trump named are people he feels should have had a loyalty to the office of the presidency, and whose comments about him he has taken personally.

“I think a number of people,” Mr. Trump said. “And I think what you look is that they have unsuccessfully tried to take down the wrong person,” Mr. Trump added, referring to himself.

ImageDuring the special counsel investigation, Mr. Trump brought up the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 after being found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage.
CreditAssociated Press

“He seems to confuse lack of loyalty to himself with treason,” said Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College, “thereby at the very least conflating the office of the presidency with the country as a whole.”

In the past, Mr. Trump has defined treason as a crime with “long jail sentences” and, during the special counsel investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia, he brought up the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 after being found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage.

“When they say ‘treason,’ you know what treason is?” Mr. Trump asked reporters in 2017 as he defended his son, Donald Trump Jr., against criticism that he had met with a lawyer connected with the Russian government at Trump Tower to gather dirt on Hillary Clinton. “That’s Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for giving the atomic bomb, O.K.?”

The Rosenbergs, who in fact were not convicted of treason, were prosecuted by Roy Cohn, a mentor of Mr. Trump’s. Mr. Cohn, who as a young aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy made his name by ensuring that the couple was sent to the electric chair, would later go on to coach Mr. Trump in the art of full-on assault of his enemies.

“He’s been vicious to others in his protection of me,” Mr. Trump said in 1980 of his mentor, who was eventually disbarred for “unethical,” “unprofessional” and “particularly reprehensible” conduct.

As Mr. Trump continues to emulate the bare-knuckle tactics he learned decades ago, he has alarmed Democrats who say his rantings against the whistle-blower will have a chilling effect in preventing people from coming forward in the future.

“This president’s comments about ‘spies and treason’ and ‘what we used to do in the old days’ are totally unacceptable and will do serious damage far beyond this news cycle,” Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, said on Twitter on Monday. “The whole reason we have whistle-blower protections is so intelligence professionals can report wrongdoing without fear of retaliation.”

Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who has long been targeted by the president at his rallies — taunts she has said have led to death threats — said on Tuesday that Republicans had not done enough to curb Mr. Trump’s behavior.

“I’m calling on the GOP to stop Trump’s filthy talk of whistleblowers being spies & using mob language implying they should be killed,” Ms. Waters said on Twitter. “Impeachment is not good enough for Trump.”

Source: NYT

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