Capitol Riot Investigation Extremist Groups (copy)

Members of the Oath Keepers on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. 

Donald Trump was not a bystander on Jan. 6, 2021. As Thursday evening’s extraordinary hearing of the House’s Jan. 6 committee confirmed, the former president was actively engaged in implementing the coup attempt he had plotted and called into being.

We now have, as journalist Carl Bernstein explains, the portrait of "an out-of-control, criminal, seditious, mad president."

What word should be used to describe Trump’s criminality?

After Thursday primetime hearing concluded, former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner described Trump’s actions on the afternoon of Jan. 6 — during which he refused to act to stop the violence and instead called senators to try to get them to overturn the results of the 2020 election — 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 Rep. 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 Jan. 6 is about, it's about treason."

According to Merriam-Webster, treason is defined as “the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance.” It is not a word that should be employed 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 had been 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 described Thursday as "one of the darkest days in American history."

Jan. 6 committee chair Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, began Thursday's hearing with an announcement: “If there is no accountability for Jan. 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 an insurrection. They will be determined by the Justice Department, which has the authority to prosecute Trump, and by the judges and juries that may be asked to consider charges against the former president. Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe says the Jan. 6 committee has "made it much easier" for the department to identify Trump wrongdoing — up to and including charges of seditious conspiracy, which Tribe notes "is just short of treason," and aiding and abetting a violent insurrection.

Tribe argues that Donald Trump acted on Jan. 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 putting 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.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@captimes.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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