Trump Amps Up Rhetoric Against Political Opponents As Impeachment Inquiry Continues

Oct 4, 2019
Originally published on October 4, 2019 4:57 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Trump is lashing out at House Democrats, who have launched this impeachment inquiry at the whistleblower, whose complaint triggered it, and at the media, who are covering it. NPR's Tamara Keith has been analyzing the president's tweets and public statements. She reports his rhetoric is becoming increasingly harsh.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: For President Trump, attacking rivals is like breathing. Using vulgar language is the norm. Calling stories he doesn't like fake news is an everyday sort of thing. But even for Trump, there's been a distinct escalation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And some people even say it was treason.

And frankly, they should look at him for treason.

Much of the media in this country is not just fake, it's corrupt.

It should be criminal. It should be treasonous.

KEITH: And that was all just this week. In fact, an NPR analysis finds Trump's use of heated phrases, including coup, treason, enemy of the people and corrupt media, jumped considerably beginning in March of this year. October is on pace to set a record. In a recent tweet, he called the impeachment inquiry something you can't say on the radio.

SAM NUNBERG: I'm glad he just said it via Twitter and hasn't done it in the Rose Garden yet.

KEITH: Sam Nunberg was an adviser to Trump in the early part of his presidential campaign and considers Trump a friend.

NUNBERG: He's personally frustrated. That is why I think - here, I don't think he's playing three-dimensional chess. But make no mistake. That anger will then transfer to his supporters.

KEITH: Trump began escalating his language in the spring, around the time the Mueller report was completed and released.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

TRUMP: This was a coup. This was an attempted overthrow.

This was a attempted coup.

They tried for a coup. Didn't work out so well.

KEITH: And it hasn't let up since then. His reelection campaign has now incorporated that language into an ad running on cable.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "TRUMP FOR REELECTION 2020")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: It's nothing short of a coup, and it must be stopped.

TRUMP: I'm Donald Trump, and I approve this message.

KEITH: Last week, in a closed-door meeting with U.S. diplomats in New York, Trump went after the whistleblower whose complaint set off the House impeachment inquiry. The audio was leaked to The L.A. Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Who's the person that gave the whistleblower the information? 'Cause that's close to a spy. You know what we used to do in the old days, when we were smart...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Right.

TRUMP: ...With spies and treason, right? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Laughter).

KEITH: Treason is defined in the Constitution and is punishable by execution. The things he's calling treason don't even come close to meeting the definition. Impeachment is a solution envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. It isn't a coup. But Trump is sending a signal, says Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth who studies Democratic erosion.

BRENDAN NYHAN: It's rare to see the president of the United States himself calling the legitimacy of the system into question. And we have to worry that Trump could escalate his attacks, or that he might be more widely echoed if he gets in further trouble.

KEITH: Nyhan says there's little risk of the military or police acting on Trump's words. But, he argues, they aren't the only ones who are listening.

NYHAN: It's certainly possible that some violent extremists out there could take him literally and or seriously, and that could be extremely dangerous.

KEITH: And Trump is being pretty transparent about the fact that he's intensifying his rhetoric.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I don't even use fake anymore. I call the fake news now corrupt news because fake isn't tough enough.

KEITH: That was Trump earlier this week in the Oval Office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: But much of it is corrupt. It's corrupt. You have corrupt media in this country. And it truly is the enemy of the people.

KEITH: But this isn't the first time Trump has put the phrase corrupt media in heavy rotation. He said it a lot in the closing days of the presidential campaign in 2016, starting three days after the "Access Hollywood" video came out. Then as now, Trump's political career faced an existential threat. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.