Donald Trump called Democrats who didn’t applaud his State of the Union address “treasonous” on Monday, showing that he either fails to understand what “treason” is; or that he has a grossly inflated sense of his own power; or both.
As CNN reported, Trump was in Cincinnati Monday for a campaign stop when, for reasons known only to him, he brought up his State of the Union address, which was last week. As you may remember, some Congressional Democrats declined to applaud the 45th president, which apparently irks Trump to no end. To thunderous applause, Trump delivered the following whopper.
“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 that much.”
In true Trump fashion, he made sure to couch his statement in weasel words – basically blaming an unknown “somebody” for his choice of words, and giving himself an out should he ever be called on it.
What, Exactly, Is Treason?
The answer to that question depends on whom you ask, but by no legitimate reference is “not applauding the president’s repeated lies” treason.
— The Hill (@thehill) February 5, 2018
Since this is the United States and, for now at least, we’re governed by the Constitution, let’s look to our nation’s founding document for answers. Treason is the only crime specified in the Constitution, and it’s woefully short on references to applause.
“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
Still, maybe the president just meant “treasonous” in a broader, more general sense. OK, then let’s take a look at the dictionary. Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say.
“The offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign’s family.”
Again, nothing in there about not giving the Head of State the deference he thinks he deserves.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Trump’s remarks haven’t gone over well outside of his support base.
Writing for CNN, Chris Cillizza noted that it’s almost expected that one side of the aisle will remain silent during some points of a presidential address to Congress. During the Obama administration, Republicans declined to applaud several of his points during several of his addresses. During the Bush 43 administration, Democrats didn’t applaud him several times. And so on and so forth, with every president before Trump and after him.
Similarly, as Mediaite reported, Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island thinks Trump has spent too much time watching North Korean television.
“Maybe he’s been watching too much North Korean television where everybody in the North Korean assembly stands up and clap together automatically whenever the Dear Leader says something. That’s not the way America works. I think that the most un-American thing was what the president said.”
And Jonathan Chait, writing for New York Magazine, couldn’t figure out if Trump was playing the role of an authoritarian dictator or an insult comic in the vein of Don Rickles. Probably both.
“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?”
Fortunately for Congressional Democrats and regular Americans alike, both the Constitution and case law make it impossible for the president – or anyone, for that matter – to unilaterally declare an action “treason” and proceed from there.
Trump’s failure to understand that just makes him look foolish.