Letter to the editor: Has Trump committed treason?
TRIBUNE-REVIEW | Friday, January 8, 2021 9:00 a.m.
Our current president spoke a few days ago in Georgia. His harangue was, to me, reminiscent of a Hitler speech. I believe he mobilized the Proud Boys and other white nationalist terrorists to invade the Capitol in an attempted coup and as such has committed treason. Like all other Benedict Arnolds, he should be tried and placed in prison for the rest of his life.
Richard P. Davis
Do we dare call Donald Trump a treasonous president?
A president pursuing a personal agenda as he ignores the national welfare may not be treason, but it is ruinous to America’s health.
Never have we seen such speculation over whether a U.S. president is actively working against his own country. By refusing to concede an election he clearly has lost, by making baseless charges intended to undermine faith in the vote, by assaulting American national security infrastructure, Donald Trump seems less democracy’s friend than foe.
From the start of his presidency, critics have wondered whether Trump, despite his America-first rhetoric, was prepared to put country first. Before he took office, Trump operatives softened language in the Republican Party platform that implicitly criticized Russian involvement in Ukraine. Months into his tenure, and with no apparent consideration of the consequences, Trump cavalierly disclosed sensitive intelligence information to Russian visitors. Trump refused to confront Russia over bounties on American soldiers. And his attempted takedown of America’s voting system left him at odds with his own Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
Christopher Krebs, the agency’s director, confided that he expected to be fired for exposing the voter fraud propaganda generated by Trump and his allies.
Trump’s efforts to overturn the presidential election drove Timothy Snyder, a Yale professor and author of “On Tyranny,” to tweet, “What Donald Trump is attempting to do has a name: coup d’état. … It must be made to fail.”
Is Trump’s behavior treasonous?
Have we reached the point in America where the president, with total impunity, can attack the very foundation of our democracy? Do we dare call such a thing treason? And must we accept such behavior as a presidential right?
It’s not as if no one saw this coming. Mary Trump, a clinical psychologist and the president’s niece, wrote a best-seller in which she argued that as long as Trump is in office, he’ll threaten national security and play politics with American lives: “He’ll withhold ventilators or steal supplies from states that have not groveled sufficiently. If New York continues not to have enough equipment,” Trump will focus on humiliating its governor, whom he despises and whose leadership skills he envies, rather than helping its residents.
Mary Trump predicted: Gov. Andrew Cuomo “will look bad, the rest of us be damned. … What Donald thinks is justified retaliation is, in this context, mass murder.”
She wrote that months before the president’s recent news briefing in which he made a veiled threat to hold up the COVID-19 vaccination for New Yorkers until Cuomo decided he was “ready for it.”
In a tweet, essentially fulfilling his niece’s prophecy, Trump falsely accused Cuomo of planning to delay the vaccine’s delivery. Other states, he added, “WANT IT NOW.” Never mind that the “now” Trump is referring to is next spring, when he will be long gone from the White House and therefore incapable of humiliating New York’s governor by denying access to the vaccine.
Trump has routinely accused those who displease him of committing treason. He leveled the charge against government workers who assisted the whistleblower whose complaint led to his impeachment. He even accused President Barack Obama of “treason” for a supposed crime — spying on the Trump campaign — that never took place.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to purge the government of people not sufficiently loyal to him, replacing them with sycophants and incompetents as he subordinates national security to settling personal scores and vengefully endangers a presidential transition. Doesn’t that make Trump the traitor?
Investigative reporter James Risen bluntly raised that question in a 2018 column (“Is Donald Trump a Traitor?”) for The Intercept. Even as Risen proclaimed Trump “the greatest threat to the national security of the United States in modern history,” he declined to answer the question directly. Treason “is vaguely defined in the law and very difficult to prove,” he pointed out.
While Trump’s own definition of treason is extremely elastic, Article 3, Section 3 of the Constitution specifically defines it as “levying war” against the United States or “adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
Whatever treason may mean in popular usage, Trump would likely never be charged with it in court. Also, as anyone who followed the Mueller investigation is aware, a sitting president is essentially immune from federal indictments. That immunity dates to a 1973 Justice Department memo, in which legal counsel Robert Dixon concluded that “criminal proceedings against a president in office should not go beyond a point where they could result in so serious a physical interference with the president’s performance of his official duties that it would amount to an incapacitation.”
The Justice Department has seen that memo as binding. But in a 2018 analysis for Lawfare blog, Walter Dellinger, a former head of the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, argued that the prohibition is not absolute. Far from “being definitive, this is a matter that could be reconsidered by the department,” he wrote.
If there was ever time for reconsideration, now is that time. A president pursuing his own political and personal agenda as he ignores the national welfare may not be treason, but it is ruinous to America’s health — and should be illegal.
Until now, most Americans could not conceive of such an irresponsible president. Presidents were expected to voluntarily practice a gentleman’s code of good conduct. Trump changed that. He likely will not be the last chief executive to believe and behave as if the office exists only to serve him. When that happens, we must be prepared to respond with something more forceful than tut-tuting and handwringing — as we tearfully bemoan the breaking of so-called norms.
Ellis Cose, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is author of “The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America,” and “Democracy, If We Can Keep It: The ACLU’s 100 Year Fight for Rights in America,” both published this year. Follow him on Twitter: @EllisCose