The bipartisan hysteria provoked by Donald’s Trump’s waging of peace in Helsinki rapidly reached its summit with John Brennan’s wild “treason” charge. This ranked high in news priority, most media showing scant concern for its truth or falsity.
According to ex-CIA-Director Brennan, Trump’s performance at his press conference with Putin – i.e. seeking friendship rather than confrontation with a nuclear megapower – was nothing short of "treasonous."
Brennan’s remark fell far short of factual. The Constitution defines treason as only (1) “levying war” against the United States” or (2) giving U.S. enemies “aid and comfort” (Article 3, Section 3).
Making a diplomatic speech does not cut it. An accused must have committed an overt act, and – unless he confesses to it in open court – two witnesses must testify to it. So says our supreme law (ibid.). It leaves the penalty to Congress, which has made treason a capital crime.
Russia is not America’s enemy, by any legal standard, Although President Woodrow Wilson (without congressional OK) waged war on Russia for twenty months – sacrificing 174 doughboys – since 1920 our two countries have been at peace with one another.
The peace has been shaky at times. The famed, fictional Doomsday Clock stands at two minutes to midnight. The U.S. and Russia possess thousands of atomic and hydrogen bombs, keeping nuclear-laden missiles aimed at one another, at hair-trigger alert. The bombs are vastly stronger than the pair that President Harry S. Truman used to slay the populations of two Japanese cities.
The madness of Mutual Assured Destruction led the leaders of both lands to the delusion that building enough of those infernal weapons to snuff out all life on earth would make one’s nation secure. In the face of human obliteration, comparable madness currently leads politicians of both major American parties to value pugnacity over peace
Who worries about war?
According to Matthew 5:9, Jesus preached on the mountain, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” It is hard to imagine Trump squeezing into that category.
Promising peace as a candidate, he turned out to be a highly hawkish president, though he has stopped short of “fire and fury” against nuclear-armed North Korea.
Civilian death tolls from bombing raids in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East have soared under Trump. Although citizen Trump urged leaving Afghanistan, President Trump escalated America’s longest war. He has secretly sent fighting forces throughout Africa, and he supports the Saudi war against the people of Yemen. None of those actions have been constitutional, not having been authorized by Congress. Yet Congress has heavily financed them.
I’m unaware of any Russophobes who protest the war-making. What Moscow-bashing bigot condemns Trump for his comradeship with the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia? That regime rates censure; let us count the ways:
- Saudi Arabia continually bombs Yemen’s homes, hospitals, markets, social gatherings, etc., in violation of international law .
- Without fair trials, it conducts public beheadings of adults and juveniles accused of protesting, of religious or sexual offenses, of witchcraft, etc.
- It unofficially supports terrorism, having financed Osama bin Laden; fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudis.
- The Saudi regime has publicly expressed interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.
So Trump is no dove. But when it comes to relations between two nuclear titans, he seems to possess just enough sense to draw the line. He knows that to avoid a conflict with our nuclear peer, he needs to cultivate good relations with President Putin. The latter may not be an angel, but his supremacy in Moscow is a fact of life. U.S. presidents have met and negotiated with unsavory Russian chiefs since the days of Stalin.
Those realities trouble the Russia-haters, who would impeach and imprison Trump for the noncrime of “collusion.” Has the Mueller investigation into alleged Russian electioneering here sapped the sense out of both parties’ politicos to the point that they are willing to risk an atomic war?
Accusations of Russian interference in a U.S. election, though yet to be proved in court, have deeply pained our nation. We will not tolerate foreign meddling in our country.
Never mind that the U.S. waged wars to overthrow regimes in Cuba, the Philippines, Panama, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya; fomented or backed coups that overthrew governments in Hawaii, Nicaragua, Honduras, Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Dominican Republic, South Vietnam, Brazil, Chile, Panama, Haiti, and elsewhere; and has secretly interfered in elections throughout the world.
Then there was that intervention in Russia, 1918-1920, to try to overthrow the incipient Bolshevik regime. And now we have U.S. and other NATO military forces bordering that oft-invaded country. But don’t tread on us!
Treason and the law
One should expect a director of the Central Intelligence Agency to show a little intelligence when it comes to the law. Yet Director Brennan enthusiastically supported extrajudicial executions and torture. He extolled the virtues of “enhanced interrogation” (torture) and “rendition” (sending suspects abroad for torture), notwithstanding three U.S. treaties against torture.
In a 2012 speech in Washington, D C, Brennan affirmed the legality of CIA assassinations by drone – without explaining how they met the constitutional standard of due process of law. He found civilian fatalities from drones to be “exceedingly rare,” though a Stanford-NYU study five months later counted hundreds of civilians, including children, killed by U.S. drones in Pakistan alone.
Now as for treason: according to various judicial opinions, it occurs only in wartime, and the war must be constitutional (unlike all our current wars, initiated by presidents).
In interpreting the constitutional provision on treason, courts have ruled that all of the following circumstances are essential for conviction. (Upon researching case law, I listed them in my Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style, p. 88):
- A person either takes up arms against the United States or supports the enemy after a war formally begins.
- In the latter event, he both takes the side of the enemy and gives the enemy aid and comfort.
- The aid and comfort is an overt act.
- The accused is a citizen of the U.S. and intends to betray it.
- The conflict formally commences with a declaration of war by Congress.
Although the Constitution and courts narrowly limit the scope of the felony, those wishing to stain political adversaries toss around the “treason” or “traitor” epithet freely.
The late Senator Joseph R. McCarthy accused the Democratic Party of “twenty years of treason.” Protesters against President Clinton termed his China dealing “treason.” A religious-right campaign looked like “treason” to a newspaper letter-writer. On Internet sites and at a Romney-for-President meeting, foes of Obama demanded his arrest for “treason.” The liberal Internet site Daily Kos calls Republicans "traitors" for not strongly opposing Trump and Russia.
Actually, federal convictions for committing the felony of treason are rare. Wikipedia lists ten. Only one of those so convicted was executed, by order of a military commission during the Civil War. He was William Bruce Mumford, whose supposed act of treason was the most trivial of the lot: removing a Union flag in New Orleans.
The last U.S. treason case was controversial. In 1948 Tomoya Kawakita, of dual citizenship, was convicted and sentenced to death for oppressing U.S. prisoners in a wartime camp in Japan. The Supreme Court affirmed his conviction by a 4-3 decision in 1952. Dissenters wanted to reverse it: Kawakita owed allegiance to Japan and so was primarily a Japanese citizen. But the majority found his official U.S. citizenship to be sufficient. President Eisenhower commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, and, finally, President Kennedy banished him to Japan.
Paul W. Lovinger is a San Francisco writer, reporter, and editor and the founder and (pro bono) secretary of the War and Law League.