President Donald Trump accused former President Barack Obama of “treason” on Monday. It was a shocking regurgitation of a Fox News conspiracy theory that seems to have largely been met by yawns from the press.
“Treason, treason, it’s treason," Trump replied. “Look, when I came out a long time ago, I said they've been spying on my campaign." He went on to say he’s looking forward to the results of a Justice Department review.
In reality, there is no evidence whatsoever that Obama spied on Trump’s campaign or that he committed “treason,” which is narrowly defined under the U.S. Constitution as “levying War against [the United States], or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort."
For years, political scientist Brendan Nyhan has responded to new evidence of Trump’s authoritarian predisposition by posing the question, “What would you say if you saw it in another country?”
In this case, the answer is quite clear. A state’s leader baselessly alleging that his predecessor committed treason would be greeted with blaring alarms if it happened elsewhere. The news would be interpreted as a sign that the state’s democratic institutions were in danger -- and that it was teetering on the brink of tyranny.
But here in the U.S., the response was largely silence. The president’s comment quickly circulated on Twitter, and some articles were written up in response. But the level and tenor of coverage did not meet the moment.
MSNBC ran a single segment on the remark Monday night, while CNN and Fox News ignored it altogether on their airwaves.
On Tuesday, the three broadcast network morning shows as well as those of CNN and Fox News all ignored the story; MSNBC’s Morning Joe ran one segment on it.
On the front pages of major newspapers and home pages of leading media websites Tuesday morning, the news was absent
Trump’s baseless accusation is rooted in the sprawling “deep state” conspiracy theory his allies at Fox News cooked up beginning in March 2017. The network’s propagandists, led by prime-time star Sean Hannity, spent years responding to the damning evidence that the Russian government sought to help Trump win the presidency -- and the prosecutions of several of his prominent associates -- by trying to tarnish the probe of those misdeeds and accusing the investigators of attempting a “coup.” The conspiracy theory was recently redubbed “Obamagate,” as its adherents pointed fingers at the former president as the purported ringleader of the coup attempt.
Trump is obsessed with Fox’s coverage in general and has been fixated to every twist and turn of this nebulous story in particular. He has ranted and raved about the “deep state” for years, fulminating against the various figures Fox puts at the center of the conspiracy theory. But while he has repeatedly alleged that the purported conspirators committed treason, this is the first time he has explicitly accused Obama of that crime.
It is true that the president’s past treason rants have not been followed with law enforcement action. But that’s not a reason for journalists to ignore them. There are pressing reasons to focus on Trump accusing his predecessor of treason.
First, the attack rends the social fabric. Democratic institutions are fragile things, and baseless accusations of treason, particularly from one president to another, threaten them.
Second, as Trump alluded in his interview with Brody, there’s now an architecture in place intended to turn Fox’s conspiracy theories into federal prosecutions: the politically-motivated probe that Attorney General William Barr and U.S. Attorney John Durham have been conducting into the early days of the Russia investigation.
Third, Trump’s comments come amid a spate of authoritarian moves by his administration.
The president’s attacks on former national security adviser John Bolton’s memoir, which accuses him of running U.S. foreign policy as an extension of his reelection campaign, were accompanied by a Justice Department effort to stop its publication. At the same time, Barr pushed out the federal prosecutor overseeing investigations into the president’s associates and tried to replace him with a crony. Meanwhile the newly installed head of Voice of America is gearing up to turn it into a Trumpist propaganda outlet.
I’m sympathetic to the argument that the press can’t give nonstop attention to every one of the president’s rants. But more urgent coverage is needed before the frog boils.