Following the 2016 presidential election, a specter of treason was hovering over Donald Trump because of his response to the mounting evidence that the Russians had intervened to help elect him.
As the president-elect entered the White House, he summarily rejected the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Russia had engaged in cyberwarfare against the US elections. He worked to block investigations into Russia’s actions. Trump advisers and associates had extensive political and business dealings with the Russian government before and during the 2016 presidential campaign. While there has not been any direct evidence that the president-elect was involved in the Russian government’s actions, circumstances suggested that individuals or groups close to the president could have aided or known about the Russian meddling.
According to the law, the federal crime of treason is committed by a person “owing allegiance to the United States who . . . adheres to their enemies, giving them aid or comfort.” Misprision (abetting) of treason is committed if a person “having knowledge of the commission of treason conceals and does not disclose” the crime.
Today the evidence of Russian cyberattacks against the US democratic process is overwhelming. On July 13, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a Trump appointee and former Republican senator, stated that “the warning lights are blinking red again,” as they were before the 9/11 attacks, and that “the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.” This high-level warning came on the same day Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced that 12 Russian agents had been indicted for hacking Democratic officials in the 2016 elections by a federal grand jury convened by special counsel Robert Mueller. The Russian attacks began the day after Trump had openly encouraged Russia to hack the e-mails of his opponent.
In response to the indictments of Russian agents last week, Trump declined to condemn the cyberattacks, nor did he indicate that he would to defend the country against them. Instead, the White House claimed that the Russian indictments exonerated the president because no Americans were accused of collusion. In the special counsel’s probe, however, four Trump campaign officials have already been charged with criminal conduct relating to the Russian cyberoffensive.
Before his meeting Monday with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Trump remarkably blamed his own country for the poor state of US-Russia relations, repeating his mantra that the Mueller investigation is a “rigged witch hunt.” Trump’s pre-summit comments implied that he would not use the tools of diplomacy, law, or military technology to defend the United States against continuing Russian cyberattacks. If true, this would be tantamount to giving aid and comfort to an enemy.
Three points are being advanced to dismiss using the treason argument.
First, American liberals claim that charging Trump with treason will only play into the hands of his base, which believes that Trump is the victim of a conspiracy by the “deep state” to derail his presidency. This is shortsighted. Trump’s actions are a reflection of weakness in the face of grave threats to US security, the opposite of what one would have expected from a champion of “America First” like Ronald Reagan. Trump’s core voters were attracted to the candidate’s projection of American power. They should be turned off by the president’s refusal to stand up to a hostile foreign power.
The second argument is that the United States has a history of meddling in foreign politics. This is true. But it does not diminish the need to respond decisively to the grave threat to US national security when a foreign power disrupts our democratic process. Trump continues to dismiss the intervention, encouraging its continuation by doing nothing to defend the country against it.
Third, it’s worthwhile to try to improve relations with an adversary. True enough, but not at the expense of US national security. The president’s hostility to the US investigation of Russian cyberattacks, his failure to impose a cost on Russia for the attacks, his denigration of US alliances, and his eagerness to have “an extraordinary relationship” with the Russian leader all point toward giving aid and comfort to an enemy.
John Shattuck, a former US assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, is professor of practice in diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.