The president is bringing the rhetorical heavy artillery to the most serious challenge to his presidency in nearly three tumultuous, norm-busting, warp-speed years in office.
Expanding on the lexicon of outrage and victimhood honed during the probe into Russian interference in the last election, Trump is invoking the muskets-and-ramparts idioms of the country’s beginnings.
The ratcheting up of his rhetoric is also indicative of Trump’s tendency to interpret any criticism of him as an attack on the government, worrying critics and scholars who warn of the dangers posed by his “l’état, c’est moi” call to arms.
“Charging anyone with treason is a most unusual act in American history. It’s an incendiary charge which relates to the ultimate crime: overthrow of the state,” said Michael J. Glennon, an international law professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
In setting out a definition and consequences for treason in the Constitution, including death, the founders were guarding against the “danger that the charge of treason could be made irresponsibly against political opponents,” Glennon said, adding that cavalierly throwing around words like “treason” and “civil war” belies their unique meaning in American history.
“I suppose it has an incendiary effect on some supporters, but we are dealing with dynamite here,” Glennon said.
Trump has focused his most pointed comments on Rep. Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who is one of the president’s chief antagonists, and the anonymous whistleblower who filed a complaint concerning Trump’s July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that is at the center of the impeachment push over accusations that Trump misused the power of his office.
“Rep. Adam B. 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,” Trump tweeted Monday.
“Arrest for Treason?” the president wrote.
He followed up Tuesday with more complaints about Schiff.
“Why isn’t Congressman Adam B. Schiff being brought up on charges for fraudulently making up a statement and reading it to Congress as if this statement, which was very dishonest and bad for me, was directly made by the President of the United States? This should never be allowed!” Trump bellowed on Twitter.
Brought up on charges of what, exactly? And by whose order? American presidents cannot order someone arrested, and Trump didn’t say whether he is enlisting Attorney General William P. Barr on this one.
Last week Trump called the whistleblower “almost a spy.” He added: “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 them a little differently than we do now.”
In his effort to attack the whistleblower and Democrats’ impeachment push, Trump has grasped at the tools he knows: communication and storytelling, said Meena Bose, executive dean at Hofstra University’s Peter S. Kalikow School of Government, Public Policy and International Affairs.
“President Trump understands public communications, and this is an effort to gain the upper hand publicly, to control the narrative,” Bose said.
She doesn’t think he is serious about trying to have Schiff arrested, but “he’s speaking to his most loyal supporters” when he suggests that his — and their — political enemies should be strung up, Bose said.
Trump was complaining Tuesday about Schiff’s dramatic license as he summarized the president’s telephone conversation during a hearing on the whistleblower complaint.
Trump’s end of the call reads like a “classic organized-crime shakedown,” Schiff said at that televised session Thursday. He went on to say Trump was leveraging American aid and support for Ukraine’s vulnerable democracy, and then put words in the president’s mouth.
“I hear what you want. I have a favor I want from you, though,” Schiff said, summarizing Trump’s conversation rather than reading directly from the rough transcript of the call. “And I’m going to say this only seven times, so you better listen good. I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent, understand? Lots of it.”
The actual wording wasn’t quite as blunt, but Trump’s meaning was unmistakable. According to the transcript, he told Zelensky he wanted the new leader to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, his son Hunter and the origins of the Russia investigation. He suggested that Zelensky work with Barr and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.
“The congratulatory phone call with the Ukrainian President was PERFECT, unless you heard Liddle’ Adam B. Schiff’s fraudulently made up version of the call,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “This is just another Fake News Media, together with their partner, the Democrat Party, HOAX!”
In that, Trump gives a synopsis of his defense: There was nothing wrong with what he said on the call, Schiff is deceitful and a subject of mockery, and the entire affair is a concoction dreamed up by Trump’s perceived enemies to bring him down.
In case there were any doubt that Trump is also accusing Democrats and the news media of conspiring against his voters, the president also tweeted on Tuesday a political map of the United States, showing its vast red expanses and geographically smaller blue enclaves.
“Try to impeach this,” the graphic said.
On Sunday, Trump tweeted a paraphrase from Baptist preacher and television host Robert J. Jeffress Jr. on Fox News. Jeffress, Trump wrote, had said that a successful impeachment “will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.”
Trump has questioned the motives and patriotism of the whistleblower and suggested that government employees who provided information to him or her should be investigated or worse. He said he wants to learn the identity of his “accuser,” while members of his administration echo his charge that the whistleblower unfairly retains anonymity while passing along “secondhand” information.
Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and national security spokesman in the Obama White House, said he doubts that Trump thinks he really has the power to order up summary arrests.
“What he’s trying to do, more than anything, is personalize this. He wants a target,” Price said.
The anonymity of the whistleblower works for Trump’s purposes, Price and others said. Faceless, at least for now, and perhaps a dweller of the intestinal “deep state” Trump loathes, the whistleblower can be demonized as the enemy within.
“They are trying to turn what is a question of our democracy, our national security, the sanctity of our elections, into an issue about a single person,” Price said. “And to the extent that he can personify this and remove the broader principles at play, that’s how Trump is going to wage this battle. He’s not going to fight on the same turf. He’s going to create his own turf.”