By an odd coincidence I was planning to write on the topic of treason this week. I was in the middle of doing the research when yesterday happened. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say as many are suggesting that like the JFK assassination and 9/11, someday our children and grandchildren will ask us where we were on July 16, 2018.
In case you missed it … after a two-hour, closed-door meeting alone with Putin save for translators, an American president in a live televised press conference standing next to our Russian adversary, dismissed the findings of his own intelligence agencies and parroted virtually verbatim Kremlin talking points.
When people popped their dropped jaws back in to normal position and the dust cleared, the condemnations of what happen began to flow thick and fast, even from some far distant places in the Trump universe that typically remain mum on his transgressions, like Newt Gingrich. The general if weak consensus was the president’s actions were nothing short of a disaster. Naturally in the aftermath of this latest spectacle the word “treason” began to be batted around. Actually, to be accurate the word was surfacing earlier when we learned that Trump intended to meet one on one with Putin without any advisors in the room.
Let’s take a look at what the word actually means and how the Constitution treats it.
A common dictionary definition says this:
1: the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign's family
2: the betrayal of a trust
The architects of the Constitution didn’t want treason trials to become political weapons, so they defined the act of treason in a very narrow way.
Article III, section 3 reads:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
When we think of treason in the context of American history the name Benedict Arnold is usually the first name that comes to mind. Arnold’s crime was planning to surrender the forts at West Point, NY to the British. After being caught, he fought for the British and later fled to England. He was never tried, because his crime happened well before the Constitution was written.
Another famous case was that of Aaron Burr who was accused of treason for plotting to steal part of the Louisiana Purchase. The case went to trial, but Burr was acquitted, partly because no witnesses came forward as is required in Article III, section 3 of the Constitution.
Charges of treason have been rare in the U.S. There have only been thirty prosecutions since the Constitution was enacted in 1789, and only one person has been indicted for it since 1950.
The key to a charge of treason is that the United States must be in a state of war, which currently, although it may feel like it, we are not. As I said, the Constitution defines treason very narrowly. I for one believe 12 Russian military officers accused of conspiring to interfere with our elections is an act of war. I also believe those indictments coupled with some reporting that those same Russian officials may have played a role in the nerve agent attack in Great Britain, certainly lay the grounds for the invocation of Article V of the NATO treaty, which states an attack against one member nation is an attack against all.
At the end of the day, as in so many cases, consequences for the president’s behavior in Helsinki are really going to depend on what Republicans in Congress are willing to do. Based on their history, that may not be much. They could impose further sanctions on Russia, they could vote to protect the Mueller investigation with legislation, and they could even vote to censure Trump.
One thing Congress should absolutely be doing and should have done prior to the summit is demand the administration give an agenda of what they hoped to accomplish by honoring Putin with a meeting. Going in, the public was never given a clear answer of what the objective was to be. So what came of this summit but questions?
Like I said earlier, in the future our children may ask us about this time period in American history and where we stood. I have a question I’d like to ask the president today, “Which side are you on?”
posted by Amy Levengood
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