Has Trump Committed Treason?

Is there enough evidence out there to support the claim that Trump has already committed treason? That depends on whether you take a legal or a political approach to the question. If you take a legal approach, where it is necessary to provide evidence for the elements of a crime, such a determination is perhaps premature in that Mueller is developing the evidence that is relevant to the question. But if you take a political approach, which means to judge actions by their fruits rather than their motives, then we already know that the federal government cannot trust secret information to the President because he is likely to leak it to the Russians whether inadvertently or by design, something he has done in the past. He told the Russian ambassador of intelligence we had gotten from the Israelis and we have no idea what he said to Putin in Helsinki.

Treason, as is well known, is never pursued as a crime, in that, according to the Constitution, it requires two witnesses to the crime. Rather, people like the Rosenbergs were prosecuted under the Espionage Act, a World War I statute that carries with it the death penalty. The legal case against the President is, at the moment, speculative. We can all connect the dots and conclude that it is reasonable to think Trump is in the tank for the Russians because of long term financial dealings where he laundered money and they have other ways to blackmail him. But that is not yet proven and does wait on Mueller. But consider the issue from a political angle. What if FDR, after the Pearl Harbor attack, had declined to make his “Day of Infamy” speech but instead issued a statement that nations, after all, are always going to war with one another, and Japan should not be penalized for doing that, and so he wasn’t going to have the United States armed forces do anything in particular in response. I think such a statement would have been regarded as an impeachable offense in that the President had subverted the security of the nation for reasons not at all clear and that someone had to be put in charge who would take the initiative and mobilize the country for war. Such a failure of judgment, which would be the charitable way of looking at it, required a congressional response to depose the President. Yet Trump has said much the same thing about Russian interference in our elections. It is just one of those things that happen, Trump says, and, anyway, Putin denies he did it and I trust him and want to get along with him.

The case against impeachment for treason, for its part, goes like this. A President is not required in his judgments to go along with either public or congressional sentiment. Woodrow Wilson disagreed with both when he lobbied for ratification of the League of Nations. Trump is doing no more than saying his judgment in these matters is superior to that of the public and the Congress. He thinks we overblow the issue of electoral interference and that it is far more important to cultivate a good relationship with Russia than to antagonize them by rubbing salt in that particular wound. We elected this guy, after all, and so should trust in his judgment. Whether the voting public is aware of just how much power is invested in a President may now cause them some consternation but it may be that all of us, congresspeople included, are waking up to this fact and what follows from it, which is that only the most seasoned of individuals, well aware of the responsibilities which they will be taking on, should be elected to that post.

Historical precedent will not lead us out of the weeds. Andrew Johnson was impeached for violating the act which barred him from firing his Secretary of War, William Stanton. His real crime, the one hiding behind this technicality, was that Johnson did not want the Army to protect the newly freed slaves because his own sympathies lay with white Southerners, the ones recently defeated in the Civil War. It was a fight about the fruits of that war, and so a policy matter rather than strictly a legal matter. And while Nixon had clearly engaged in serious crimes to cover up election irregularities, the impeachment of Clinton was based on the desire of Republicans to get anything on him that might stick and that included sexual improprieties that would have been swept under the rug with any other President as being too undignified to deserve impeachment proceedings. So sometimes the purported crimes of the President have policy substance as the real basis for impeachment and sometimes they don’t. The question now is whether Trump has violated the law about getting assistance from a foreign power and is, in fact, so much under the sway of Putin that he does his bidding.

The question of treason is separate from the one about whether Trump has already subverted American values, a larger claim that may be more serious and is enforceable not in a court of law but in the court of public opinion. Morning Joe contributed to that the other morning when he addressed Donald directly saying that Trump’s staff must think him very stupid to advise him not to meet with the special prosecutor, when it is obvious that Trump cannot be trusted to keep his story straight. Why would Joe do that? He is following Fox New’s practice of trying to convince an audience of one by flattering him. Joe is therefore saying something he would not say if Trump were not in his audience, and so is violating the trust his audience has in him to tell it like he sees it. This might to Joe seem like a minor sin or a one-off. The trouble is that it is a leak in the dam that separates the various arenas of America life: the media, in this instance, from simply being a pipeline to the powerful.

The press conference held two weeks ago in the White House Press Room by the heads of the various national intelligence agencies changed nothing but rather intensified the view that the national security apparatus is going about its duties regardless of what the President might say. That is no more than to say that these people, all appointees, who have served in the military or government for their whole careers, are what the Alt-Right calls “the deep state”, which is a pejorative for the permanent civil service that keeps the nation going, one administration after another, by making its expert judgment available to whomever is temporarily in power and sometimes is led astray, as the intelligence services were by Dick Cheney, that old and experienced bureaucratic infighter, so as to support his story that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Their outspokenness this time around speaks well of them though it does suggest that they must be fleet afoot so as not to have to denounce the President while announcing that they are just carrying out their responsibilities to protect the nation against Russian intrusions in our elections. The President can tweet whatever he wants to or say anything he wants to to Putin. The non-elected officials want to assure the American people that they are up to their jobs. The government bureaucracy and national security apparatus are standing in the way of the President carrying out his desires. I wish the same could be said of the agencies concerned with immigration which do seem to be doing his bidding to disregard, for example, the law that allows people to apply for asylum.

The question of treason may only be a cipher for an even deeper charge that we don’t know how to deal with, which is that this man is just not up to the job. He is ignorant, stupid and uneducable and also mean spirited, even as these are the qualities that many of his supporters admire. What are you to do under such circumstances? You can’t impeach someone for stupidity. Or can you? I would prefer not to have to consider that and rather await what Mueller comes up with that is more in the realm of legal discourse even though the danger that Trump poses to the national welfare is really at base his personality characteristics rather than his policies in that he carries out very few of them, since he has gotten no wall and has managed only to engage in the atrocity of separating three thousand children from their families, and his administration is on the job of national security even if he isn’t. So all things considered, I don’t want him impeached because any reason for doing so would be a subterfuge, a way around the fact that his real problem is characterological rather than legal. Let him just hang out there, his onslaught on democracy controlled by a Democratic controlled Congress, until he is defeated at the polls or, more likely, the Republicans, who don’t have much use for him anymore now that he gave them the tax break, dump him for renomination.

That’s why I am hoping that Mueller comes up with old fashioned crimes such as Russian payoffs. That charge might stand up to Congressional scrutiny and be clearly impeachable, as even the Trump Tower meeting would not, because that was just a feeling out session, so it would seem, rather than a direct exchange of dirt on Hillary for the repeal of the Magnitsky Act that punished oligarchs. And maybe the Congressional proceedings would drag on long enough so that Republicans would nominate someone else in 2020, which would provide a way to end this crisis by an appeal to the voters rather than the invocation of impeachment powers, which the Founding Fathers thought would be used only in the last resort, as the equivalent of chopping off the head of a King.