The dictionary definition of treason is straightforward. It is “the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance.”
History provides a catalogue of illustrations of treasonous acts. But rarely have we gotten so precise a play-by-play of “overt acts to overthrow the government” as has been provided by the hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol. The evidence mounted Thursday evening, as the committee examined the more than three hours on January 6, 2021, during which Donald Trump actively aided and abetted the violent coup he had plotted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election that confirmed the defeat of his bid for a second term.
Thursday’s prime-time hearing revealed a sitting president who refused to abide by his oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and instead facilitated the violence of armed insurrectionists whom he had called into action with a December 19, 2020, message to supporters—“Come to D.C. January 6th; Will be Wild!”—and with a “Stop the Steal” rally cry of “Fight like hell!” As the central figure in the conspiracy to initiate that fight, Trump knew exactly the significance of his actions when, in the words of January 6th Committee chair Bennie Thompson, he “could not be moved” to use the immense powers at his command to stop the deadly violence.
“For hours, Donald Trump chose not to answer the pleas from Congress, from his own party, and from all across the nation to do what his oath required,” explained January 6th Committee vice chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). “He refused to defend our nation and our Constitution. He refused to do what every American president must.”
What explains Trump’s failure to do his duty on January 6, 2021? Was he paralyzed by fear? Was he overwhelmed by the chaos? Was he uncertain of how to most effectively counter an insurrectionist mob’s deadly assault on the Capitol? Was he getting mixed signals from aides such as Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and White House counsel Pat Cipollone? Or from family members such as Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner? Was there a technological barrier to Trump’s issuing a call on the insurrectionists to stand down?
No. No. No. No. No.
Witnesses, testifying before the committee on Thursday and in videotaped statements, addressed every one of those questions and pointed to the conclusion reached by Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who reviewed the timeline that transpired between the close of the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally on the Ellipse and the eventual release by the White House of a video in which the president embraced the mob’s message—“We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it…”—before finally saying, “I know how you feel, but go home, and go home in peace.”
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“President Trump did not fail to act during the 187 minutes between leaving the Ellipse and telling the mob to go home,” said Kinzinger. “He chose not to act.”
Why? “The mob was accomplishing President Trump’s purpose so, of course, he didn’t intervene,” explained the congressman. The chaos in the Capitol bought Trump time to continue his project of overturning the election. Instead of intervening to stop the violence at the Capitol, the president was making calls to encourage senators to reject Electoral College votes from the battleground states that had handed the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden.
As the violence escalated, the president sent a 2:24 pm tweet that declared, “Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.” With that tweet, Representative Elaine Luria (D-Va.) told the committee on Thursday night, “President Trump…put a target on his own vice president’s back.”
Trump was not a bystander. He was actively engaged in implementing the coup he had plotted. Thursday’s hearing confirmed and amplified the dramatic June 28 testimony of former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson on the president’s refusal to act on January 6.
We now have, as journalist Carl Bernstein explained Thursday evening, the portrait of “an out of control, criminal, seditious, mad president.”
What words should we use to describe Trump’s criminality?
After Thursday night’s hearing, former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner described Trump’s actions during those three hours on January 6 as “treasonous.”
Referencing the Constitution’s definition of treason, Kirschner said, “What we know, based on all of the evidence in these public hearings is Donald Trump levied war, he waged war against the United States, against the democratic process.”
His was not an isolated assessment.
“It wasn’t dereliction of duty, it was treason,” declared former Republican Representative Joe Walsh on Thursday night.
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, another former Republican member of Congress, argued before the hearing, “Donald Trump committed treason against the United States of America. If you’re wondering what January 6th is about. It’s about treason.”
“Treason” is a charged word. It should not be used casually. Yet what better word is there to describe the actions of a president who plotted a coup, urged it on, and then—as the violence flared—used the opening to renew an effort to overturn the results of an election in which he was defeated?
It is unlikely that Trump will ever be formally charged with treason. Yet saying the word matters. It provides clarity as the discussion turns to the issue of accountability for Trump’s crimes on what former White House aide Sarah Matthews said Thursday was “one of the darkest days in American history.”
Representative Thompson began Thursday’s hearing by declaring, “If there is no accountability for January 6, for every part of this scheme, I fear that we will not overcome the ongoing threat to our democracy. There must be stiff consequences for those responsible.”
Those consequences will not be determined by the committee, or by a Congress that refused to convict an impeached Donald Trump for inciting insurrection. They will be determined by the Department of Justice, which has the authority to prosecute Trump, and by the judges and juries who may be asked to consider charges against the former president. Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe says the January 6th Committee has “made it much easier” for Attorney General Merrick Garland to charge Trump with wrongdoing—up to and including charges of seditious conspiracy, which Tribe notes “is just short of treason,” and aiding and abetting a violent insurrection.
Garland, who has faced criticism for what many see as a tepid approach to accountability issues, said Wednesday that the DOJ is engaged in “the most wide-ranging investigation and the most important investigation that the Justice Department has ever entered into.” That is good, because, as Tribe noted on Thursday, we now have evidence that Trump acted on January 6 as “an arsonist [who] sets fire to a building and then watches while it burns—rather than turning on the hose.”
That’s one way of saying it.
Another way of saying it is that Donald Trump is an offender who attempted by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which he owed allegiance.