What Does Treason Mean In Modern America?

Published: Tuesday, September 18, 2018 - 11:53am
Updated: Tuesday, September 18, 2018 - 3:27pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: More than once, President Donald Trump has invoked the word treason on his Twitter feed — including a reference to whichever member of his administration wrote the recent anonymous op-ed in The New York Times. But the strict definition of treason in the U.S. Constitution focuses on levying war against the U.S. or giving aid and comfort to our enemies. And with me to talk more about treason and its current place in our headlines is Carlton Larson, law professor at UC Davis. Professor, how much of what we're hearing now on treason actually has to do with rhetoric that maybe someone in a high position of government just doesn't like?


CARLTON LARSON: Yes, so I mean a lot of times treason is used just in a rhetorical manner just to sort of generally mean that the person has been disloyal. There's not necessarily a connotation that they have committed a specific criminal act but a lot of the claims do seem to be actual charges of crimes. In that case, you know many of them are just simply wrong because treason is so narrowly defined. Most of the things that are labeled treason just simply are not.

GOLDSTEIN: How much has President Trump sort of changed at least how people think about the word? Whether they're accurate or not or whether they're putting most of the pressure on him. Are we reading too much into it because he's president and he has a huge platform a huge bully pulpit?

LARSON: Well I think, you know Trump has made a difference. You know I used to never get calls asking me whether or not the president United States committed treason. I get them all the time now, and that's partly because of the you know allegations concerning Russian meddling in the election. And so that has put the issue of treason you very much front and center for the people who are your critics or President Trump see him as a traitor. Trump to use the term quite loosely is not just this claim against the New York Times editorial author. He made the same statement about Democrats who didn't applaud him during the State of the Union. So he certainly bears a decent chunk of the blame for these claims.

GOLDSTEIN: Based on the strict definition of treason, what would President Trump have had to do as a candidate relating to the Russia investigation for it to actually be treason?

LARSON: I don't think there's anything he could have done with respect to Russia that would have amounted to treason. Russia is not an enemy. We're not in a state of war with Russia. So the only thing he could have done to be somehow you know maybe levy war against the United States with Russia and that would mean that, you know, raising an armed force within the country to overthrow the government, and he didn't do anything close to that.

GOLDSTEIN: Does this period of time remind you of any time when it comes to these sorts of accusations? Because we've compared so many times that this reminds certain people of 1968, and they're making parallels between President Nixon and President Trump and in terms of actual — what we're hearing about treason — is there a period in American history since the revolution that would make you, reminds you of that?

LARSON: Well, the period where treason was most salient was of course the Civil War. Where you had you know a large chunk of the country actually engaging in treason by living war against the United States you know by succeeding and then you know raising armies to fight the United States Army. So there you had widespread massive real treason. What we have now is fortunately nothing close to that.

GOLDSTEIN: And I was even thinking about the McCarthy era as well, did that rise to that? I mean, obviously not the Civil War-level, but did that?

LARSON: Yeah. Certainly. Yeah. You certainly saw lots of allegations there of you know who's a communist. ... [E]ven the term witch hunt probably was used in the McCarthy era. And there lots of people who are identified as communists and some of them really were and some of them were in fact agents of the Soviet Union most notoriously ... Rosenberg ... who handed nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union, but they were tried for espionage, not for treason because we weren't at war with the Soviet Union. So that was certainly a period where there was there was a lot of concern about secret Soviet meddling in the United States.

GOLDSTEIN: Is there a rhetorical danger to any extent of people saying treason and may people not actually knowing what it means and thinking oh maybe this person is disloyal to our country because he's upset our president or something?

LARSON  Yes. I do think there is a serious danger that when the term is bandied about too loosely it's sort of stripped of all meaning. And I think the greater risk is just a perception in public life that people who have differing political views — different views are sort of the same should go as a nation or somehow disloyal or un-American and potentially traitors simply because of their political beliefs. And that's sort of precisely the concern that the framers of the Constitution had when they wrote this definition into the Constitution was that we don't want it used as a political tool. You know that when one party comes into power than the other the opponent the opposing party is going to be viewed as traitors and hanged, or that opposition to the government is somehow treason. I mean, we're free to debate and argue, and I just tweeted out today that something that President Trump said that I thought was ludicrously stupid. I don't think ever to be charged for treason for that even, though it's certainly disrespectful of the government.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you think this has opened up a new period in which we're going to hear this this sort of thing, or does a lot of this — like so much of our political culture now — does a lot of it sort of revolve around what President Trump does and that may or may not last beyond how long he's in the presidency?

LARSON: Yeah. My guess is that after Trump we will see fewer claims of this sort. Certainly with the Russia stuff. I mean there the ties between a president and a you know a foreign power that's not certainly looking out for our interests are so unusual that I'd be surprised if we saw that type of claim again against the president. At least, I hope so.

GOLDSTEIN: Carlton Larson is a professor of law at UC Davis.

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