Dishonest? Certainly. Self-serving? For sure.
Narcissistic and intellectually lazy? Check and check.
Attracted to autocrats? Unfortunately, yes.
Willfully ignorant of both policy and democratic processes? Also yes.
But is the president of the United States engaged in treason?
Even in extraordinary times, that’s an extraordinary question. Yet here we are. Last Friday, Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers for interfering in the 2016 election and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats compared contemporary signs of Russian cyber warfare to those the U.S. received before the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
On Monday, President Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. He largely blamed his own country for the state of relations between the two powers, attacked Mueller’s investigation and said he didn’t see any reason why Russia would meddle (even though Putin acknowledged that Trump was his preferred candidate).
Trump says he just wants the United States and Russia to get along, and that they could accomplish a lot together if they did. Indeed. That would be nice. But it’s odd that the president who doesn’t have a kumbaya bone in his body seems to save his kumbaya moments for Putin.
John O. Brennan, CIA director under President Obama, said Trump’s performance in Helsinki was “nothing short of treasonous” and impeachable. Sen. John McCain declared that “no prior president has ever debased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.” Among prominent commentators, James Fallows said Trump is either a “conscious tool” of the Russians or a “useful idiot.” Thomas L. Friedman charged that Trump “is deliberately or through gross negligence or because of his own twisted personality engaged in treasonous behavior.”
Before the Helsinki meeting took place, David Rothkopf argued that distracting from or obstructing an investigation into collusion is itself collusion, and that impeaching Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, as some congressional Republicans want to do, would benefit a foreign adversary and “is textbook treason.”
It’s true that serious-minded people can lose their heads sometimes, too. But it’s a big mistake to dismiss such criticism, even if it’s from Trump foes, as more of the empty, poisonous rhetoric of our times.
So the question remains: How strong is the case that President Trump has engaged in treasonous behavior? What does that mean? Is treason any act that aids an adversary – or should it be limited to the legal definition, which appears to restrict it to wartime.
Trump is quite right in insisting that no one has proved collusion between his campaign and the Russian government. Perhaps, as some of those close to Trump have maintained, the campaign was too disorganized to collude with anyone. Perhaps Roger Stone and others really didn’t know they were communicating with Russian intelligence agents. Perhaps Trump has gone easy on Russia out of willful ignorance: Maybe he never asked, has no idea, and doesn’t want to know who actually financed his business deals after banks cut him off as a bad risk. (You can bet that Putin knows).
If there was no provable collusion, it’s hard to make a case that Trump committed treason in order to get elected. He can — and should — be held accountable politically for an appalling absence of candor, lack of preparation, bad policies and abysmal judgment. Short of collusion, it’s possible that Mueller will find evidence of obstruction of justice, which might be an impeachable offense. Whatever information emerges on what happened in 2016, it’s likely to come from Mueller. So he must be allowed to finish his investigation unimpeded.
In the meantime, there is another scandal playing out, largely in full view of the public. The warning by Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana, is just the latest in a series by officials in the Trump administration, members of Congress, former U.S. officials and analysts that the U.S. needs to take dramatic steps to counter cyber warfare by countries such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. Coats said the Russians were interested in dividing and weakening the United States, not only by attacking its political system but by undermining critical infrastructure.
To Trump supporters, Coats’ comments and the latest indictments seem timed to embarrass the president. There may be some truth to that. But probably closer to the truth, as Rothkopf suggested, is that Trump couldn’t be trusted to stand up for U.S. interests, and officials needed another way to deliver a message to Putin. If that’s the “deep state” in action, and if it embarrasses Trump, so be it.
The next elections are less than four months away. Judging from his comments in Helsinki, Trump will continue to ignore the warnings of those he himself appointed to safeguard U.S. national security. That’s the scandal sitting in plain sight.
Inaction that allows cyberattacks to damage American democracy or infrastructure, despite forewarning, would be a serious dereliction of duty. It may provide aid and comfort to an enemy, but without falling into the narrow, legal definition of treason. And it’s best not to throw such words around, absent a clear idea of what they mean.
That’s not to say there is no way to hold Trump accountable. Willful refusal to protect the country against an adversary would seem to be a good example of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”