Yesterday Donald Trump effusively thanked the Republican legislators who went to bat for him during the Mueller hearings. "I very much appreciate those incredible warriors that you watched today on television—Republicans—that defended something, and defended something very powerful, very important," he told reporters. "Because they were really defending our country. More than anything else, they were defending our country."
Sound familiar? During his rally in North Carolina last week, Trump excoriated Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who in January promised "we're going to impeach the motherfucker." In Trump's mind, that comment was evidence the Tlaib hates America. "Tlaib also used the F-word to describe the presidency and the president," he said. "That's not nice, even for me. She was describing the president of the United States and the presidency with the big, fat, vicious—the way she said it—vicious F-word. That's not somebody that loves our country."
Whatever you think about the case for impeachment, this is a pretty creepy way of describing people who dare to criticize the president, profanely or not. Yesterday on Twitter, Trump called the argument that he obstructed justice when he tried to stop, limit, and control the Mueller investigation an "illegal and treasonous attack on our Country." Trump likewise has called former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's suggestion that Justice Department officials record their conversations with him after he fired FBI Director James Comey "illegal and treasonous." The Mueller investigation itself was a "Phony & Treasonous Hoax" involving "treasonous acts," according to the president.
Even failing to applaud Trump during his State of the Union address might qualify as treason, he suggested last year. "Somebody said 'treasonous,'" he said during a visit to Cincinnati. "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." When The New York Times published an anonymous op-ed piece by an administration official who was critical of the president, that was also "treason" in Trump's book. Likewise Democratic opposition to his immigration policies.
Legally speaking, treason, which is punishable by death, happens when an American wages war against the United States, "adheres" to the country's enemies (defined as nations or organizations that are at war with the U.S.), or "gives aid and comfort" to them. Trump is obviously speaking more loosely (although he did say last May that investigating his 2016 presidential campaign was "TREASON," which "means long jail sentences"). But even colloquially, treason implies a betrayal of the nation. Hence Trump is equating attacks on him with attacks on the country.
His fans may see no problem with that, since they like Trump and therefore are not guilty of treason, according to his definition. But they might react differently to a Democratic president who routinely suggested that criticizing him, investigating him, or calling for his impeachment is or should be illegal because it gives aid and comfort to America's enemies. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall Barack Obama or George W. Bush using that sort of rhetoric when people said they should be impeached.
For Trump's detractors, the temptation to turn the treason charge around is strong. Former White House adviser Stephen Bannon said Donald Trump Jr.'s June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer who claimed to have dirt on Hillary Clinton was "treasonous." Last February, Malcolm Nance, a counter-terrorism and intelligence consultant, opined that "the president of the United States may have committed treason." Political consultant Rick Wilson, former CIA Director John Brennan, former State Department official John Shattuck, presidential historian Jon Meacham, and New York Times columnist Charles Blow, to name a few, have all accused the president of treason. In those cases, there is at least a hypothetical foreign nexus, but Trump's alleged misdeeds still do not meet the legal definition, which requires aiding a country that is at war with the United States.
All this talk of treason is about as productive as Trump's response to the charge that he's racist. I'm not a bigot, he says; you're a bigot. When everyone's a traitor, no one is a traitor, because the word loses all meaning. Tossing it around so casually is poisonous to rational debate and feeds a hyper-partisan atmosphere in which every position someone takes has to be judged, first and foremost, by whether it is pro- or anti-Trump. Is it possible for Americans to argue about politics and policy without accusing each other of betraying the country? It's not a rhetorical question.