Critics of President Trump need to stop saying the word “treason.” Whatever is going on between Trump and Russia, calling it “treason” is factually incorrect and politically counterproductive.
The occasion for these accusations, of course, is Trump’s Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, at which the president of the United States dismissed the clear, documented presented by his own intelligence agencies and sided with the leader of a hostile foreign power—the same foreign power, of course, that meddled in the 2016 election. In response, critics from former CIA Director John Brennan to talk-show host Stephen Colbert have accused him of treason.
Treason is clearly defined in the Constitution, which states, in Article III, Section 3: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”
This definition does not apply to Trump. He is not levying war against the United States, and to be an “enemy” requires that a state of war exists between the United States and the foreign nation in question.
That does not exist in the case of Russia. Congress has not declared war, and Russia’s alleged cyberattacks, while they may constitute acts of war in the abstract, have not been regarded as such by the United States. (Last year, the European Union announced it would begin regarding cyberattacks as acts of war.)
Even when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, they weren’t charged with treason, because the Cold War was undeclared, and not a formal “war.” Nor were other Russian spies such as Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.
In fact, the only indictment of treason since World War II was of American-born al Qaeda supporter Adam Gadahn. Unlike Russia, al Qaeda is a formal “enemy” of the United States, because Congress authorized war against it. And in fitting with war, Gadahn was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2015.
So, the crime of “treason” is simply not applicable here. And there are at least four reasons why critics of Trump shouldn’t bend the rules.
First, as indicated by the Constitution’s use of the word “only,” and the fact that treason is defined in the Constitution in the first place, the Framers were very concerned about the loose use of “treason” to describe all kinds of activities. (Indeed, the Constitution goes on to set forth detailed requirements for establishing the crime in court.) The king of England did that often, with bad results. It’s an easy way to crack down on political dissent.
Progressives should share that concern today. Critics of the United States are more likely to be suspected of treason than are conservatives; Trump is an anomaly. Just a few years ago, it was whistleblower Edward Snowden whom politicians from John Bolton to Dianne Feinstein were accusing of treason. The word has been carelessly applied to and is frequently in the QAnon conspiracy. In the 20th century, it was regularly lobbed at ’60s activists, suspected communists, and even the state of California.
This is not a word that people who care about civil liberties should use loosely.
Second, the tight definition of “enemy”—dependent on a state of war—is important as well. The power to declare war lies with Congress, not the president or pundits. Yes, this restriction has been heavily diluted in recent years, arguably resulting in a lot of militarism and too much strengthening of the Executive Branch. Given Trump’s autocratic tendencies, the last thing Trump’s critics should encourage is further loosening of Congress’ powers in foreign affairs.
Third, and not to state the obvious, Trump has a deeply tortured relationship with the truth. Between being inaugurated and May 1 of this year, he lied over 3,000 times, telling an average of 6.5 lies each day. He has repeatedly attacked the free press as the “enemy of the people.”
Now is not the time for Trump’s critics, liberal and conservative alike, to play fast and loose with the truth.
Indeed, this is a grave, serious moment in our nation’s history. Part of the challenge in opposing Trump is the blizzard-like nature of his constant attack, a strategy that can be credited to Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn: Always attack, never apologize. Everyone is suffering from “Trump fatigue” and fewer and fewer people can bear to follow the news anymore, but the Russia imbroglio really matters, in a way few other issues we face matter. Sloppy exaggerations like “treason” actually feed the Trump machine of rapid-fire insanity. Now is a time for sobriety, not carelessness.
Finally, now is also a time for bipartisan unity against a severe threat to our nation’s integrity and status in the world community. The word “treason” increases the volume and decreases the meaning of the accusation. It makes it too easy for Republicans to say, essentially, “there you go again, hysterically yelling at President Trump.” And it makes it harder for moderate Republicans to get on board with Democrats against Trump.
The Trump-Putin relationship is not of concern merely to liberal snowflakes. On the contrary, it ought to be of even greater concern to conservative patriots, which is why the Helsinki press conference has been condemned even by Fox News.
Those of us who also can’t stand Trump’s misogyny, kleptocracy, and vulgarity need to set those issues to the side right now. The issue is not the Trump Baby, but the president of the United States failing to defend the country against attacks by a foreign power, and siding with the leader of that foreign power against his own intelligence services.
It’s neither true nor helpful to shout “treason” at Trump. On the contrary, it’s the kind of sloppy falsehood that Trump himself would use.