Trump's 'Liberate' Tweets Incite Insurrection and Flout Federal Law Against Overthrow of Government: Ex-DOJ Official

A former Justice Department official accused President Donald Trump of flouting federal laws by inciting insurrection with a series of tweets calling for states to be liberated from stringent "stay-at-home" orders amid the coronavirus outbreak.

In a series of tweets on Friday, Trump appeared to call on his supporters to "liberate" themselves from strict state policies aimed at keeping residents safe amid the pandemic.

"LIBERATE MINNESOTA!" Trump wrote. "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!"

Then, the president called on supporters to "LIBERATE VIRGINIA and save your great 2nd Amendment," warning his followers: "It is under siege."

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While Trump has defended the tweets, claiming that some state policies are simply "too tough," Mary McCord, a former acting assistant attorney general for national security at the U.S. Department of Justice warned that the messages could violate federal law.

In an interview with Newsweek on Sunday, McCord, who penned an op-ed in The Washington Post accusing trump of inciting insurrection against duly elected governors, said that while it would likely be difficult to actually convict Trump of such a crime, the president's tweets were extremely "dangerous."

"You have to be able to prove intent for many crimes," McCord, who currently serves as the Legal Director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University, said. "The point of the piece was not necessarily to say he should be prosecuted; it was to show how our code treats... incitement as criminal because it's very dangerous.

"What he's saying, when he has a Twitter following of millions and millions of people and gets instant coverage in the U.S. and all over the world, it's very very dangerous," McCord said. "There are people, armed people out there who listen to what he says and they act up on it in ways that are not always peaceful."

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Under U.S. Code, someone who "incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof" can face heavy fines and even imprisonment for up to 10 years.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump delivers remarks during a press briefing with members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force on April 18, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Sarah Silbiger/Getty

Noting that the president's tweets came just a day after he issued guidance for "reopening America" that explicitly deferred decision-making to state officials, McCord said it was bewildering that Trump would undercut his own guidance in such a short time span.

The former DOJ official further said she found it hard to believe that the president would not have been aware of the powerful message he would sent to his supporters.

"I think he did have the awareness. there's no way you could say otherwise, particularly when you use a word like 'liberate' and particularly with reference to his Virginia bombastic statement about 2nd Amendment rights being 'under siege there. People know exactly what he's talking about," she said. "I think he should have been aware and I think he was aware."

In her op-ed, McCord writes that the word "'liberate'—particularly when it's declared by the chief executive of our republic—isn't some sort of cheeky throwaway."

"Its definition is 'to set at liberty,' specifically 'to free (something, such as a country) from domination by a foreign power,'" McCord wrote. "We historically associate it with the armed defeat of hostile forces during war, such as the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany's control during World War II."

"Just over a year ago," for example, "Trump himself announced that 'the United States has liberated all ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq,'" McCord said. Invoking that same word now to call on state residents to "liberate" themselves, McCord told Newsweek, "it's reckless. He should know better."

The former DOJ official is not the only one who has accused Trump of violating federal law.

On Twitter, attorney Eva Golinger called for the president to be "immediately removed from office and put on trial for sedition and treason" for his social media messages. "Trump is calling for the violent overthrow of Democrat-governed States," Golinger said. "He is a dangerous threat to public health and state sovereignty."

Speaking with Newsweek on Sunday, Golinger said she agreed with McCord that it might be difficult to see Trump convicted over his comments.

Further, she said, "you could make the argument that his statements on Twitter were too ambiguous" to be directly connected to sedition, or calling on people to rebel against the authority of a state. "But, at the same time, he directly referred to that and then, he has gone on television and defended the statements," she said.

Golinger said it was also concerning that the president had also defended protesters who have rallied against state policies, calling them "very responsible people," particularly when protesters had been seen Confederate flags and comparing state officials to Nazis.

Ultimately, Golinger said, "You can say it's vague, but, when you put all his statements together and see he's come out twice... defending these statements and reiterating that he supports these protests... I think a case could be made against him [for] incitement to sedition against state governors."

Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University, is not so sure, however. Speaking with Newsweek on Sunday, Turley said the new allegation appeared to be one in a string of attempts to see Trump tried over his actions and removed from office.

"There are many people, many critics, who want to take political disagreements and turn them into criminal matters, but the criminal code is not an extension of politics," Turley said. "If we allow politics to blend into prosecutions, we would have a very different and dangerous political system."

From Turley's perspective, claims that Trump's comments incite insurrection, Turley argued, "are overwrought and exaggerated."

"I don't think any reasonable person would believe the president is calling for armed rebellion," Turley said. "Trump's critics often engage in the same exaggerated rhetoric as the president engages in. His tweets were as dangerously incautious as they were overwrought."

"The case law is quite clear on this," he said. "Bad policy choices are not criminal acts, as a general rule. The court has maintained this for decades."

"The problem is that we live in an age of rage," Turley said. "We can certainly chastise the president for raising political issues during a pandemic, but it's not surprising that both sides are doing this. "

"It's not just the president," he said. "Both sides in this age of rage have been unable to transcend politics during this pandemic."

This article has been updated with comments from Mary McCord, Eva Golinger and Jonathan Turley. Newsweek has contacted the White House for comment.

Trump's 'Liberate' Tweets Incite Insurrection and Flout Federal Law Against Overthrow of Government: Ex-DOJ Official | U.S.