President Donald Trump escalated his rhetorical condemnation of the Mueller investigation Wednesday, calling it an “attempted coup,” the first time the president himself has used that specific — and inaccurate — term to frame the investigation.
Trump’s language mirrored that of far-right media figures, who have long criticized the nearly two-year probe as baseless.
Speaking to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, Trump called the investigation “phony,” “an illegal witch hunt,” “an attempted takedown of a president,” “a scam,” and “disgraceful.”
“This was an attempted coup. This was an attempted take down of a president. And we beat them, we beat them,” he said, referring to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. “…When they talk about obstruction, we fight back. And you know why we fight back? Because I knew how illegal this whole thing was, it was a scam.”
“What they did was treason. What they did was terrible. What they did was against our constitution and everything we stand for,” he added.
Trump has repeatedly referred to the Mueller probe as “treason,” claiming in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity last month, “If we had done this to President Obama, you’d have 100 people in jail right now and it would be treason.”
Trump’s use of the word “coup” is, if nothing else, inaccurate, as it is generally defined as a sudden power grab carried out in a violent, illegal way, often involving the use of the military. The Mueller investigation was a systematic process using existing legal structures over the course of nearly two years without any violent force whatsoever. Even if the full report delivers damning details about Trump’s past behavior, or prompts some other consequence for his presidency, it would still in no way resemble a coup.
What the president appears to be doing is echoing the language of some of his favorite right-wing media figures, who have attempted to distort and demonize both the investigation and those associated with it.
Incendiary far-right radio host Alex Jones, whom Trump once described as “amazing,” regularly describes any perceived threat to Trump’s presidency as a “coup,” characterizing the Mueller investigation specifically as a “deep state coup.” Trump confidante Roger Stone has similarly accused Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — who oversaw the investigation after former Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself — and the FBI of “open sedition” and “a plot to take down the president.”
Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, a frequent guest on Fox News, the president’s preferred network, recently addressed reports that Rosenstein wanted to invoke the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution to remove Trump from office, calling it “clearly an attempt at a coup d’état.” (The 25th Amendment was proposed by Congress in 1965 and ratified by the states two years later, making it perhaps the furthest thing imaginable from a coup d’etat.)
Even in the hour before Trump made his comments Wednesday, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was on Fox News claiming that officials behind the investigation staged “what essentially was a coup against a duly elected president.”
The decision to brand the investigation as a “coup” goes back as far as 2017, when Fox News began fear-mongering that the Russia investigation constituted a coup. Many observers pointed out then that using the term so casually was dangerous.
Trump has previously offered support for this type of framing, tweeting quotes from both Hannity and far-right commentator Dan Bongino, who in February claimed the FBI was plotting a “government overthrow.”
“This was an illegal coup attempt on the President of the United States.” Dan Bongino on @foxandfriends True!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2019
“The biggest abuse of power and corruption scandal in our history, and it’s much worse than we thought. Andrew McCabe (FBI) admitted to plotting a coup (government overthrow) when he was serving in the FBI, before he was fired for lying & leaking.” @seanhannity @FoxNews Treason!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 19, 2019
Trump’s comments came one hour before Attorney General William Barr’ testified before the Senate that he believed intelligence agencies investigating the 2016 election were also “spying” on the Trump campaign.
Barr, who once condemned Mueller’s investigation before eventually being appointed to the chief Justice Department role, has so far controlled access to Mueller’s findings from the two-year investigation. He has suggested he agrees with the president’s concerns that the FBI acted inappropriately and said Wednesday that he would be “reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016.”
Already, the president’s rhetoric has trickled down to the rest of the Republican leadership. On Wednesday morning, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy retweeted from his official campaign account a tweet by Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager.
“Now the investigation has flipped,” Parscale wrote, referring to Barr’s revelation that he was reviewing the origins of the Russia investigation. “This can never happen again. This attempted coup needs to be fully investigated!”