Trump Tweet: Impeachment Would Trigger “Civil War”

October 5th, 2019 - by Mary B. McCord / Lawfare Blog

Armed Militias Are Taking Trump’s Civil War Tweets Seriously

Mary B. McCord / Lawfare Blog

 (October 3, 2019) — Over the weekend, the president sent a tweet that seemed to warn of civil war if he were to be impeached and removed from office:

Donald J. Trump ✔@realDonaldTrump

….If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they will never be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” Pastor Robert Jeffress, @FoxNews

Although the president was quoting Pastor Robert Jeffress’s comments on Fox News, he was adopting them as his own.

It might seem tempting to dismiss this language as of a piece with President Trump’s typical Twitter rhetoric. But it is worth paying particular attention to this tweet—because among the people who read it were militia groups enthusiastic about exactly what Trump portended. And while no violence has yet resulted from the president’s tweet, it would be foolish to underestimate the power of Trump’s comments to call rogue militias to action, particularly if there is an impeachment and he continues to use this rhetoric to fan the flames. In the days after his civil war tweet, he went on to use similarly incendiary language, referring to impeachment proceedings as a “COUP.”

Consider the Oath Keepers group, a far-right armed militia. Calling on its 24,000 Twitter followers to read the president’s whole tweet thread, the Oath Keepers account posted:

Oath Keepers@Oathkeepers

Here’s the money quote from that thread. This is the truth. This is where we are. We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war. Like in 1859. That’s where we are. And the Right has ZERO trust or respect for anything the left is doing. We see THEM as illegitimate too.@StewartRhodesOK

Before this tweet, the Oath Keepers account tweeted that, under the US Constitution, “the militia (that’s us) can be called forth ‘to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.’ … “All he has to do is call us up. We WILL answer the call.” Other Oath Keeper tweets also hint at violence: One states that “their favorite rifle is the AR 15.”

According to the Oath Keepers’s webpage, the organization is “a non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders, who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,’” while declaring that they “will not obey unconstitutional orders.” 

The Anti-Defamation League, by contrast, describes the group as “an anti-government right-wing fringe organization” whose members have appeared “as self-appointed armed guards” at various places around the country, in defiance of what they deem to be unconstitutional government action. Last month, the group sought“security volunteers” from their membership and “other capable patriots” to escort Trump supporters attending a New Mexico rally “to protect them from potential leftist violence.”

And last year, the Oath Keepers announced its “Spartan Training Group program,” with the goal of “form[ing] training groups in as many states as possible” to create “a pool of trained, organized volunteers who will be able to serve as the local militia under the command of a patriotic governor loyal to the Constitution, or if called upon by President Trump to serve the nation” (emphasis in original).

The Oath Keepers are far from the only militia group that vocally supports deploying potential force in aid of the president. In November 2018, after Trump pledged to send up to 15,000 US troops to the border to deal with the approaching caravan of Central American migrants, the militia group known as “The Minuteman Project” published an “URGENT CALL FOR TEXAS BORDER OBSERVATION DUTY” to cover the 2,000-mile border from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas.

According to US Army documents obtained by Newsweek at the time, the military expressed its concern internally about the presence of unauthorized militias along the border, warning that protests occurring at points of entry historically had been peaceful, “unless extreme right or left groups attend.”

The Minuteman Project’s co-founder, Jim Gilchrist, cautioned potential volunteers that their adversaries were “US-based PROPAGANDA organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, People without Borders” and many more groups like them. He further warned members to “use extreme caution when confronted by mainstream media” because “they are not your friends.”

Earlier this year, after Trump’s reelection campaign repeatedly ran ads quoting Trump’s references to an “invasion” on the southern border, another group—the United Constitutional Patriots—set up camp at the New Mexico/Mexico border. Without any legal authorization, this group assumed the duty of US Customs and Border Protection to stop and detain migrants, all while heavily armed and dressed in military fatigues.

In March and April 2019, a spokesperson for the group, Jim Benvie, regularly posted livestream videos on Facebook showing militia members chasing and capturing migrants while armed with assault rifles, and detaining them until they could be turned over to US officials. In other posts, the United Constitutional Patriots described themselves as combatants in a “war” raging along the border due to migrants’ “invasion” of the country and actively sought to recruit people with military or law enforcement experience to join them.

One such recruit, upon observing migrants while on “patrol” at the border, reportedly grabbed his AR-15 and asked his fellow militia member, “Why are we just apprehending them and not lining them up and shooting them?” In April, after the group’s “national commander” was arrested on unrelated charges and the Union Pacific Railroad ordered the group off of its property, significant media attention exposed the militia’s activities and it reconstituted itself as the Guardian Patriots, decamped to private land with the owners’ consent, and closed its public Facebook account.

Both of these armed militias took action at least in part in response to Trump’s rhetoric about the need to secure the southern border. Now that the president has invoked the idea of civil war, there is a risk that armed groups will take heed of this language too, whenever the president suggests that it is time.

Federal criminal law prohibits “rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof,” including incitement or assistance to such rebellion or insurrection. It also prohibits conspiring to overthrow the US government, levy war against it or oppose its authority by force. Based on the organization’s declared mission, there’s little doubt that the Oath Keepers would view any impeachment action by congress as “unconstitutional” and therefore not to be obeyed.

Although the group’s current tweets come close to calling for rebellion or insurrection should that happen, there’s been no indication that the US Department of Justice is investigating. Are the militias drawing up plans for possible civil war, for example? Are they training? Are they stockpiling weapons? These are things that law enforcement should be investigating, whether under federal law or state law.

Although it is widely believed that the Second Amendment protects the right to form private militias, it does no such thing. The Supreme Court made this clear in its 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, explicitly reaffirming its own 1886 holding that “the Second Amendment … does not prevent the prohibition of private paramilitary organizations.” Indeed, they are prohibited by state constitutional provisions or statutes in all 50 states.

The constitutions of 48 states include provisions that require the military to be at all times subordinate to the civil authority. That means that private, unregulated and unauthorized militias—operating wholly outside of the civilian governmental authority and public accountability—are prohibited by state law.

There is good reason for this. As prominent historian and scholar A.E. Dick Howard wrote in 1974 in “Commentaries on the Constitution of Virginia,” the Virginia constitution’s ban on private militias “ensures the right of all citizens … to live free from the fear of an alien soldiery commanded by men who are not responsible to law and the political process.”

Notably, Virginia was the first state to adopt its own constitution, known then as a Declaration of Rights, in June 1776. According to the operative language in Virginia’s constitution, illustrative of the language used in 47 other state constitutions, “[I]n all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.”

Last year, in a successful lawsuit against the private militias that usurped legitimate law enforcement authority during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a state judge ruled that, based on this “strict subordination” clause in Virginia’s constitution, “[t]here appears to be no place or authority for private armies or militia apart from the civil authorities and not subject to and regulated by the federal, state, or local authorities.” The case resulted in court orders prohibiting the defendant militias from returning to Charlottesville as part of coordinated, armed groups during rallies, protests, demonstrations and marches.

Other state law criminal provisions also prohibit various types of militia activity. Twenty-eight states prohibit groups of people from associating together as a military unit or parading or drilling together in public with firearms. (It was one of these statutes that the US Supreme Court upheld in 1886 against a Second Amendment challenge in Presser v. Illinois.) Similarly, 25 states prohibit assembling together to teach, demonstrate, train or practice with firearms, explosives or “techniques” capable of causing injury or death, knowing and intending to further a civil disorder.

And another state criminal statute, found in some variation in 12 states (and in the US Code), prohibits the false assumption of the duties of a law enforcement or peace officer or the unauthorized wearing of military uniforms or close imitations thereof. The United Constitutional Patriots’s spokesperson, Jim Benvie, is currently charged in federal court with violations of the federal statute based on his false assumption of the duties of the US Customs and Border Patrol. And this summer, the Virginia attorney general issued an opinion that heavily armed militias, dressed in fatigues and other military accessories, acting in a coordinated fashion and patrolling a line of citizens waiting to engage with their elected legislators before a special session on gun safety legislation, violate Virginia’s prohibition on the false assumption of law enforcement functions.

The Oath Keepers and other militia organizations are in violation of some of these laws right now. Their existence as private paramilitary units in states with “strict subordination” clauses is prohibited, as it is in states with statutes that prohibit associating together as a military unit or company.

Training, instructing or practicing in paramilitary techniques for use in a “civil war” or other uprising is also currently banned in many states. And to the extent the armed militias are showing up in public places asserting authority they don’t have, they are violating state and federal laws criminalizing the false assumption of law enforcement duties.

Some observers may say that the tweets of both the president and the Oath Keepers are simply hyperbole. But the militia movement has shown that it will take action based on the president’s statements. His “civil war” comments were phrased conditionally—dependent on “the Democrats” attempting to remove him from office. State officials and law enforcement, however, do not have to wait for that condition to be fulfilled—or for the president to post new tweets that militias may interpret as calling them to arms—to tackle the potential threat posed by militias.

Governors may issue cease and desist orders based on their state constitutions, law enforcement may initiate investigations based on federal and state criminal statutes, and the public may report instances of current law-breaking by militia members. Authorities would not sit idly by while foreign forces prepare for potential violence against other Americans, and they should not sit idly by while rogue private armies do the same.


DongiC: Looks like both sides are getting ready for war. Imagine Charlottesville at a national level. The yahoos may be heavily armed but they are hardly a match for the US military. As long as the armed forces stay loyal, no problemo. If they split with nuclear weapons divided, good bye America.

Elizabethblock: As long as the armed forces stay loyal ….. but I wonder: How many of them sympathize with the far right?
As for the cops, how many of them have been trained in crowd control in Israel, where they are taught to treat the civilian population as the enemy?

 Chrisconno: The American military is not supposed to be activated within our borders. They are not supposed to be used against us within our own country. The National Guard are the ones who could be called on to suppress an insurrection. The same ones who have been unwisely and extensively used to fight for our imperialistic oil whims in all the other countries.

 ddd-rrr: Trump is a narcissistic sociopath (in other words, a convincing and very able con-man), 
which makes those weak in intellectual abilities and thoughtfulness easy subjects for, and supporters of, his evil intentions. We have seen the results of this before, with such as Hitler and Pol Pot, and the outcome was never good! REMOVE TRUMP NOW, while there is still time to act peacefully!

 ellen9: This news should be taken seriously by all Americans and the loyal government workers who still care about the future of our country. The mob violence in Charlottesville is the perfect example of the dangers posed by armed militias and extreme right wing elements who follow Trump.

 WorkingClass: There is no provision under existing law that supports private militias. The Constitution in Article 1, Section 8 is very clear on what a militia is and what’s its purpose. The national guard is the modern day outgrowth of the Constitutional authorized militia and one of its purposes is to put down yahoo’s that form private militia to take government into their own hands.

 HenryS1: I am more concerned about Trump initiating military action abroad, perhaps “started” by some false flag incident.
Impeachment itself will raise tensions, but the Senate in its present form will never remove Trump from office. What impeachment will do is focus some attention on what Trump has done wrong. But Trump will of course attempt to drown all that out, and he is very good at doing that.
The best hope is the 2020 election. But that depends on who runs against Trump. I hope it isn’t Biden, but if so I will somewhat grudgingly support him against Trump, of course.

Rodion Raskolnikov: HS1 — I agree with you. A Wag the Dog scenario would do more to quell the impeachment news than a civil war, which would make the news media go ballistic and blame Trump. 
Democrats would essentially support a war against Iran or a few other places. They have to “support the troops” and sort of support the commander of the troops. 
Personally, I’d much prefer to have the civil war than another foreign war against innocent people. But how about no war at all. How about concentrating on the 2020 election, as you say.

Futhark: Seriously, I don’t anticipate this Donald Trump fantasy from materializing. Sure, there are a lot of Trump-following old boys in camouflaged dress out there pretending to play soldier and they may have plenty of weapons, but should they come up against a regular army or national guard unit, all their popguns wouldn’t be a fart in a hurricane. 
I suspect most are just barely smart enough to understand that an assault on US military units loyal to the flag and Constitution is not only an act of treasonous stupidity, but the consequences would be inevitably lethal for them.

Rodion Raskolnikov: These militia groups get mobilized quite often. They were far more mobilized when Clinton was president. It ended in Ruby Ridge, Waco, and Oklahoma City. Clinton passed the “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act” which allowed the FBI to infiltrate all militia groups, destabilize them, and pre-emptively arrest any of them who might commit a crime.
And they mobilized under Obama. Only Bush was exempt and it seems he was exempt from everything, especially oversight and impeachment. 
I’m not really worried about these groups. There is an interesting argument about principle here but that’s all that is interesting. When someone takes up weapons against a tyrannical state, they do not need any justification in a constitution or law. They have moved beyond that. Their weapons are now the law. People to have a right to rebel and overthrow tyrannical and unjust governments. I don’t think we are at that point. Any attack on democrats would just be simple assault or murder. There’s a lot of that in the US. Nothing new there.


I recall reading that in the 1850s, prior to the civil war, the northern abolitionist newspapers and the southern pro-slavery newspapers published livid hyperbolic denunciations of their rival ideologies.
Meanwhile, there was an economic melt-down that rivaled the 1929 crisis in severity. 
The reality for average white farmers and laborers had nothing in common with the narrative that sold newspapers in the both the north and the south.
Some 20th century historians wrote that slavery was becoming economically unprofitable in the 1850s; and it was probably destined for abolition within ten or twenty years.
The hyperbole of the mass media, and the incompetence of President Buchanan and the southern legislators drove the country into the civil war.
Lesson: progressives, liberals, conservatives, and aspiring militia volunteers should disregard the hyperbole of the mass media. 
As a pretty good former president said (about a dozen times), “we’re all in this together”.
Americans will work through it. I’m inspired by the old saying “If the people lead, the leaders will follow”.