Days before, Trump wrote, “Why should I be defending a fraudulent Russian Witch Hunt. It’s about time the perpetrators of this fraud on me and the American People start defending their dishonest and treasonous acts. How and why did this terrible event begin? Never Forget!” Trump, it turns out, violates his oath of office a lot.
On February 18, he wrote, “‘The biggest abuse of power and corruption scandal in our history, and it’s much worse than we thought. Andrew McCabe (FBI) admitted to plotting a coup (government overthrow) when he was serving in the FBI, before he was fired for lying & leaking.’ @seanhannity @FoxNews Treason!” Trump appears to regard himself, rather than the people, as the nation’s sovereign, like the tyrant king whom the Founders rebelled against.
In 18th-century England, royal accusations of treason were “a means of suppressing political dissent and punishing political opponents for crimes as trivial as contemplating a king’s future death (what was known as ‘compassing’), or speaking ill of the king (‘lèse majesté’),” the University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck wrote. “King Henry VIII even had two of his six wives executed for alleged adultery on the ground that such infidelity was, of itself, ‘treason.'”
The English abuse of treason was anathema to a nascent republic dedicated to the rule of law and the right of peaceful dissent. Thus, to ensure that treason could not likewise be co-opted for political or personal purposes, the Constitution’s drafters not only defined it precisely (it’s the only offense specifically defined in that document), but also specified, “No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act …”
The Framers were guarding against the possibility that Americans would one day elect a man so morally weak and corrupt that he would falsely accuse political enemies of treason. In 2016, Americans narrowly elected a man who is that degraded. Congress and the judiciary have a constitutional duty to check his abuses of power, and the public has a patriotic duty to oust him from office. But as yet, most Republicans show no inclination to mount a 2020 primary challenge, as if they are content to continue supporting a man of low character.
Their failure, while disconcerting, is not treason, as it is neither levying war against the United States nor adhering to its enemies nor giving them aid and comfort.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.