So might have the whistleblower’s several White House sources. And the Democratic congressman running the impeachment inquiry looking into it. And even, perhaps, all the Democrats who failed to clap for him at a State of the Union speech.
In real life, Trump could not be more wrong.
Treason is a specific crime with a specific definition and is punishable by death, and filing a complaint against a president, providing information against a president and running a congressional investigation into a president do not even come close.
“This is consistent with what we have been warning against all along,” said Bandy Lee, a professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine who has for years argued that Trump’s behavior has exhibited worrisome signs. “That he would become more irrational, more paranoid and vindictive, and dangerous not only to the country but the world and human civilization, the more he is threatened.”
White House officials acknowledged privately that the actions Trump is complaining about do not constitute treason. They would not, however, respond to HuffPost’s queries about whether Trump understood that, and, if he did, why he continued to use a word that is defined as a capital offense in attacking his perceived enemies.
Trump has since taking office spoken and written as if he believed that merely criticizing him was “treasonous.”
At a Feb. 5, 2018, speech about tax cuts in Ohio, Trump complained that Democrats had not applauded for him enough at his State of the Union speech the previous week. “Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much,” he said.
During special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian assistance for Trump’s 2016 campaign and his attempts to block the probe into it, Trump frequently labeled those working on and cooperating with the probe “treasonous.”
Since the revelation of his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, though, Trump has in recent days become far more specific with his treason accusations.
Trump told State Department employees at the United Nations mission in New York last week that the White House officials who “gave the whistleblower the information” had behaved like spies. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now,” Trump said, according to audio obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
On Sunday, Trump posted a statement on Twitter demanding that he be able to confront both the whistleblower and his sources and accused them of acting illegally: “Was this person SPYING on the U.S. President? Big Consequences!”
And Monday morning, Trump escalated his rhetoric even further by specifically targeting Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat and chair of the House Intelligence Committee, for arrest based on his statement in committee last week that likened Trump’s request of Zelensky to that of a mob shakedown.
“It bore NO relationship to what I said on the call. Arrest for Treason?” Trump wrote.
Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer whose colleague is representing the whistleblower, said none of Trump’s targets has done anything illegal, let alone something resembling treason.
The U.S. Constitution defines treason: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
And the U.S. Code defines it: “Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.”
“I don’t believe we have even charged someone with treason since the late ’40s, if memory serves,” Moss said. “As I recall, not even the Rosenbergs were accused of treason.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor and fascism expert at New York University, said Trump’s most recent remark about Schiff is revealing.
“What is interesting here is the more explicit call for arrest,” she said. “Of course this builds on the theme of ‘locking up’ his political rival for office, but the call to explicitly lock up for treason someone who is confronting him just confirms that he sees politics as an entirely personal matter.”