U.S. President Donald Trump and some who want him impeached are trading accusations of “treason" and threats to national security amid warnings from analysts that such language could fuel irreparable harm to the nation's civil and political fabric.
“While talk about treason and potential armed insurrection might score political points for one side or the other, it is not only unhelpful, it is dangerous,” says John Malcolm, vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s Institute for Constitutional Government.
Trump has denounced a whistleblower and other officials as traitors for accusing him of pressuring Ukraine's leader to investigate Trump's chief political rival and suggested they should be executed. And over the weekend, the president retweeted a quote from a Texas mega-church pastor who warned that impeachment would create a "Civil War like fracture" that would never heal.
Senior Democratic House leaders have lashed back at Trump, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California — the first to call for Trump's impeachment — who declared on Tuesday that Trump needs to be "imprisoned and placed in solitary confinement."
“Even Lincoln, during an actual civil war, was careful about his language,” notes David B. Cohen, political science professor at the University of Akron. “That Trump is flippantly using terms such as ‘treason’ and ‘civil war’ is very dangerous and may be interpreted by his most potentially violent true believers as a call to action.”
Trump is also accused of pushing largely debunked conspiracy theories, including trying to flip the Ukraine script, alleging origins in Kyiv of the investigation that drew links between his 2016 presidential campaign and Moscow.
The president also is demanding investigations of Joe Biden, a leading Democratic Party presidential candidate, for allegedly pressuring Ukraine’s government while serving as Barack Obama’s vice president on behalf of Biden's son, Hunter Biden.
One of the president's former advisers, Thomas Bossert, who served as Trump's first homeland security adviser, said over the weekend that the president has been repeatedly warned by his own staff that the Ukraine conspiracy theory was "completely debunked." Bossert told reporters that he was "deeply disturbed" that the president continued to press Ukraine for information.
Presidents “have engaged in conspiratorial rhetoric before,” said Mark Cheathem, a history professor at Cumberland University, who also terms Trump’s language “extremely dangerous.”
President Andrew Jackson “believed that the national bank was using government funds to buy elections. Before becoming president, Abraham Lincoln warned Americans that a national conspiracy existed to defend the institution of slavery,” Cheathem told VOA. “The three previous presidents who have faced impeachment (Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton) also employed conspiratorial rhetoric in their own defense as they faced possible removal from office."
Cheathem says Trump's frequent use of conspiratorial rhetoric suggests “he is extremely gullible and simply repeats unsubstantiated conspiracy theories based on what he reads on social media or watches on television or is extremely crafty and thinks that Americans will believe whatever he tells them, even if it is unsupported by logic and evidence.”
If it is the former, Cheathem contends, then Trump is not using critical thinking to make decisions and “that possibility should frighten us all.” If it is the latter, then the president “is purposely lying to Americans in order to protect himself at all costs.”
Defenders on TV
Trump allies, on cable television and social media, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, describe the Democratic Party’s push toward impeachment as a “legislative coup d’etat.”
Trump, on Tuesday evening in a tweet, was even more blunt, declaring: “As I learn more and more each day, I am coming to the conclusion that what is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP…”
In recent days, Trump has zeroed in on the congressman taking point on the impeachment inquiry in the Democrat-led House, Adam Schiff.
The president is questioning whether the intelligence committee chair should be arrested for treason for what Trump decries as Schiff’s false summarization of a phone call between him and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
That call and a related complaint from an intelligence community whistleblower – whom Trump wants to unmask -- is at the heart of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
In the West Wing, there is unease but no acknowledgment of alarm about the increasingly hostile discourse between the president and his foes.
“It’s business as usual,” is how one deputy describes the situation. But the official, speaking to VOA on condition of not being identified, characterizes an aggrieved president trying to battle a “perfect storm” of pursuing re-election amid an impeachment inquiry pushed by an unrelenting “radical left” intent on removing him from the Oval Office.
White House officials say that is prompting increasingly ferocious tweets from Trump, who is an insatiable consumer of the cable TV news coverage about his imperiled presidency.
Trump will ignore any suggestions the tweets are too extreme, according to the officials.
September was Trump’s busiest month on Twitter since the 2016 election. And the inflammatory content of his recent tweets has prompted a Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. senator, Kamala Harris, to suggest Twitter should suspend the @realDonaldTrump account.
'Cold Civil War'
Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh informed his listeners last Friday that the country is in the middle of a “Cold Civil War” with Democrats fighting to overturn the 2016 election results.
Trump, himself, reposted a quote from a Southern Baptist pastor, Robert Jeffress, a Fox News contributor, who warned of an actual civil war if Democrats pursue removing the president from office.
“This is beyond repugnant,” responded Adam Kinzinger, a Republican member of the House foreign affairs committee.
That presidential action on social media also crossed a line for one prominent law professor.
“This tweet is itself an independent basis for impeachment -- a sitting president threatening civil war if Congress exercises its constitutionally authorized power," Harvard University’s John Coates wrote on Twitter.
There are calls for cooler heads to prevail across the political divide.
“The impeachment process is not intended to serve as a partisan political weapon. It is meant to address serious misconduct in order to immediately remove a president who is unfit for office,” Heritage Foundation's Malcolm, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s criminal division, tells VOA. “While other countries can remove a head of state following a ‘no confidence’ vote if the people no longer like that leader or his policies, we do not operate under a parliamentary system. Instead, we resolve our policy disagreements through elections and the legislative process.”
Cohen, a fierce critic of the president on Twitter (@POTUSProf), says he retains faith the United States “will escape this dark period in our nation’s history without succumbing to a second civil war.”