During a speech on the Senate floor, Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) condemned President Donald Trump for his remarks that Democrats who did not applaud him during last month's State of the Union address are "treasonous."
"I have seen the President's most ardent defenders use the now-weary argument that the President's comments were meant as a joke, just sarcasm, only tongue in cheek," Flake said. "But treason is not a punchline, Mr. President."
The White House, via Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has claimed that Trump was merely "joking" when he made the comments to laughter and applause during an appearance outside Cincinnati, Ohio, and Flake made it abundantly clear that he did not buy that explanation.
“I have seen the president’s most ardent defenders use the now-weary argument that the president’s comments were meant as a joke, just sarcasm, only tongue in cheek," he said. "As members of Congress, we must not ever accept undignified discourse as normal because of the requirements of tribal party politics.”
Afterward, when reporters pressed the White House for comment, Sanders issued the following response: "Honestly, I'm not going to respond directly to Senator Flake's comments. I don’t care what Senator Flake has to say, and I don’t think his constituents do either. That's why his numbers are in the tank."
Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley also brushed aside Flake's remarks, insisting that the president's comment was "tongue-in-cheek." Added Gidley, "The President was obviously joking. But what's serious is that the Democrats seem to consistently put their personal hatred for this President over their desire to see America succeed." (It seemed lost on Gidley that Senator Flake is, in fact, a Republican.)
Washington Post fact-checkers have noted that former President Barack Obama only uttered the word "treason" twice during his two terms in office. Both times were in reference to the rise of Trump.
For example, during a fundraiser in Austin, Texas, in March 2016, Obama said:
“As long as it was directed at me, they were fine with it. … Now, suddenly, we're shocked that there's gambling going on in this establishment. What's happening in this primary is just a distillation of what's been happening inside their party for more than a decade. The reason that many of their voters are responding is because this is what's been fed through the messages they've been sending for a long time: that you just make flat assertions that don't comport with the facts; … that compromise is a betrayal; that the other side isn't simply wrong … but the other side is destroying the country or treasonous.
So they can't be surprised when somebody suddenly looks and says, ‘You know what, I can do that even better! I can make stuff up better than that! I can be more outrageous than that! I can insult people even better than that! I can be even more uncivil.
If you don't care about the facts or the evidence or civility in making your arguments, you will end up with candidates who will say just about anything and do just about anything.
During an appearance in Dallas the following day, Obama, referring to Trump's proposal for a Muslim registry, said Americans "can support candidates without treating their opponents as unpatriotic or treasonous or somehow deliberately trying to weaken America.”
By contrast, Trump's often inflammatory comments––which have run the gamut from attempting to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe to alleging that any suggestion that his campaign colluded with Russian operatives is a ploy orchestrated by the Democrats––seem tailormade to question the motives of the opposition, and the White House has continued to defend his claims under the guise that he was merely "joking" or simply being "sarcastic."
The president's braggadocio has only continued to rouse commentators like New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait, who observed that Trump "combines the instincts of an authoritarian with the mannerisms of an insult comic." He notes: "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?”