On Feb. 5, 2018, President Donald Trump remarked to the Sheffer Corporation in Cincinnati that the Democrats’ failure to stand and applaud during his 2018 State of the Union address to Congress amounted to treason. Trump is quoted by CNN as saying that the Democrats “were like death and un-American. Un-American. Somebody said, ‘treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”
Trump’s remarkably blunt stream of consciousness is ill-informed and demonstrates again that he lacks a basic understanding of the U.S. Constitution, which he has sworn to uphold.
Here’s a quick roadmap — Article III of the U.S. Constitution defines “treason.” It is the only crime that is specifically defined in the Constitution: “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.” The colonies had recently fought to separate from England where charges of treason were used to silence dissidents. The drafters of our Constitution intended that grounds for treason be expressly defined and, in doing so, narrowed its use to specific circumstances so that an ambiguous characterization could not be politicized as a weapon to silence opposing views. Since 1789, charges of treason have been few and far between, with only forty federal prosecutions and even fewer convictions. Brown students — and the population at large — need to understand that injudicious use of the word treason threatens the bedrock of our very democracy.
The Democrats’ decision not to stand for Trump during his address, whether appropriate or otherwise, undoubtedly does not fit within the definition of the crime described in Article III. And Trump’s claim of “not loving our country very much” is nothing more than his subjective displeasure at what he observed: a time-honored tradition of dissent from those “across the aisle.” So commonplace is Trump’s ego-centric criticism that we have become inured to it, and find it closer to the annoying buzzing of a mosquito than to a fundamental threat to our freedom. Yet are we underestimating the danger? Is Trump just reckless with words, or has he intentionally misappropriated and misapplied the crime of treason to stifle criticism? Those on Brown’s politically-minded and intellectually grounded campus are equipped to make their own decisions on Trump. But I advise awareness that he is not the only one to haphazardly throw constitutionally-derived firecrackers into the mix. Indeed, several others, on both sides of the aisle, are guilty of the same offense as their president: labeling an act or deed as treasonous without having legal justification for their assertion. Are they too just engaging in polemics or is there enough at stake to make this commentary more than just cavil?
This controversy has come to the forefront in light of possible Russian collusion in the 2016 election. People from all sides of the political spectrum, from Sen. Tim Kaine D-VA to Steve Bannon, have used the word “treasonous” to describe Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer to get information on opponent Hillary Clinton. Though less blatant than Trump’s misuse, this too is inconsistent with the treason described in the Constitution. The key word in the context of the Constitution is enemy. Treason laws have narrowly defined enemy as those with which the United States is in an open or declared war. Although the elasticity of our Constitution may allow for a broader definition, it is likely that at the time, the framers meant to encompass only other sovereign countries with which we are at war. Under this definition, while the United States is “in competition” with Russia, we are formally at peace with it. There are other acts and laws which may be or have been violated, but the alleged collusion with Russia does not fit into the constitutional rubric of treason. And to use it in that manner lessens its import and undermines, in a “crying wolf” manner, its proper and more serious application. There is nothing banal about what is meant by treason, and the voices of those who disagree with us are not the intended target, no matter how disagreeable our opponents’ actions or inactions may be.
As the framers intended, accusations of treasonous behavior leave no room for hyperbole. Gaining traction in an argument certainly does not justify corrupting fundamental tenets of our constitution. Brown students need to be cognizant of the historical background of our words, and scrupulously accurate when accusing a political opponent of any form of treason or other serious crime. According to our framers, to do otherwise may endanger our democratic processes.