By ALEXANDER MALLIN, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — Attorney General William Barr argued in an interview Wednesday that President Trump’s repeated allegations of “treason” against political opponents he believes targeted his presidency is a phrase that the president uses “colloquially,” rather than literally.
“Treason is a legal term,” Barr told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “I think he’s using it colloquially. To commit treason, you actually have to have a state of war with a foreign enemy, but I think he feels that they were involved in an injustice, and if he feels that, he can say it.”
Article 3 of the U.S. Constitution states that the legal standard for convicting a person of treason “shall consist only in levying war against [the U.S.], or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
But a review of Trump’s frequent past use of the term, which he primarily uses to denigrate those he believes were involved in launching the investigation of his presidential campaign’s ties to Russia in 2016, shows how Trump nearly always connects the phrase directly to the prospect of sending his enemies to prison.
“If I were a Democrat, this whole thing would have been so different, people would be in jail now two years ago for 50-year terms because this was treason,” Trump said in a Tuesday interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham. “This was subversion. This was the overthrow of a country.”
Trump has in recent months increasingly invoked ‘treason’ to baselessly tie the launch of the Russia investigation to his election opponent former Vice President Joe Biden as well as former President Obama. A review of the investigation released last year by the Justice Department’s inspector general concluded the probe was launched with proper cause by the FBI, despite errors and missteps by bureau and DOJ officials through the course of the investigation.
Those findings, however, haven’t stopped the president from falsely accusing his opponents of treason dozens of times this year alone.
“We caught President Obama and Sleepy Joe spying on our campaign. That’s treason. That’s illegal,” Trump said to reporters in Arizona last month. “These people should take them and do something with them.”
“So we catch Obama & Biden, not to even mention the rest of their crew, SPYING on my campaign, AND NOTHING HAPPENS?” Trump tweeted in July. “I hope not! If it were the other way around, 50 years for treason. NEVER FORGET!!!!”
Though Barr announced in May that neither Biden or Obama were the subjects of any criminal investigation — and there was never any serious suggestion prior to that announcement that they were, Trump has more recently relied on the ongoing DOJ investigation into the Russia probe by U.S. Attorney John Durham.
Barr tasked Durham last year with reviewing whether there was any criminal wrongdoing by officials involved with the Russia investigation, and last month Durham brought his first criminal case when a former FBI lawyer pleaded guilty to altering a document used in a renewal application for surveillance against a former Trump campaign aide.
“Nobody has ever seen anything like it,” Trump said in a campaign speech reacting to the agent’s plea. “You can call it whatever you want. I use the word treason. They got caught.”
Contrary to the president’s accusations, however, the former FBI agent Kevin Clinesmith’s plea was for one count of making false statements — and the charging documents made no allegation regarding a broader conspiracy against Trump or his campaign.
Barr’s effort to re-contextualize the president’s statements wasn’t unusual.
In the same interview Wednesday, for instance, Barr was asked about comments the president made earlier in the day telling voters in North Carolina they should vote twice, which if done intentionally is a federal crime.
“They will vote and then they are going to have to check their vote by going to the poll and voting that way because if it tabulates then they won’t be able to do that. So, let them send it in, and let them go vote,” Trump said Wednesday in an interview with a North Carolina news station WECT. “And if the system is as good as they say it is, then they obviously won’t be able to vote. If it isn’t tabulated, they will be able to vote. So that’s the way it is, and that’s what they should do.”
“I don’t know exactly what he was saying,” Barr said. “But it seems to me what he’s saying is — he’s trying to make the point that the ability to monitor the system is not good, and if it was so good, if you tried to vote a second time, you would be caught, if you voted in person.”
And in an interview with ABC News in July, Barr sought to explain President Trump’s incendiary tweets slamming NASCAR for its ban on the Confederate flag, arguing Trump’s intentions were likely more directed at those seeking to ‘erase history’ by defacing statues of Christopher Columbus and George Washington.
“I think what he was likely referring to are– you know, some of the things that people would feel were — and I’m not talking about the NASCAR thing,” Barr said. “From my standpoint, NASCAR was a business decision by NASCAR. They’re a private corporation– private business. They’re entitled to make a business decision. But, you know, there’s some people who feel that some of our history is being erased, you know, when you take George Washington and start defacing George Washington or Christopher Columbus or others. And you know, that’s upsetting to people.”
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