President Donald Trump last week accused an FBI agent who, during the 2016 campaign, had sent anti-Trump texts to his girlfriend, also an FBI agent, of "treason." He told the Wall Street Journal, "A man is tweeting [sic] to his lover that if Hillary loses, we'll essentially do the insurance policy. This is the FBI we're talking about -- that is treason."
That's right, treason -- the gravest crime with which an American can be charged. It's a crime that normally carries the death penalty. And that's all for sending a text that the president didn't like.
Treason is one of only two crimes that are actually defined in the Constitution. Article III, Section 3 states clearly, "Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court."
The FBI agent obviously didn't commit treason. But this isn't just Trump being his normal bombastic self. "Treason" is a term that is bandied about far too loosely these days. And it's dangerous.
A couple of years ago I appeared in an obscure Spike TV documentary about whistleblowers. The reporters interviewed friends, supporters, and journalists. They each offered their views on the motivation of whistleblowers, what I had revealed about the CIA's torture program, and the Obama administration's use of the Espionage Act to curb national security whistleblowing.
The responses were what you might expect -- whistleblowing is good, the public has a need to know, etc. But one of the people interviewed, Ronald Kessler, a has-been reporter for the hard right newspaper The Washington Times, said pointedly that the discussion shouldn't be about the concept of whistleblowing. It should be about my "treason" against the United States. The interviewer pressed him and he repeated, "Kiriakou is a traitor."
I allowed myself a few days to cool off and, in the end, I just let it go. Nobody saw that documentary anyway, and Kessler was so unhinged that nobody took him seriously.
But that word "treason" has entered the American political vernacular. We see it all the time now, as if it's somehow normal that traitors are allowed to commit their treason and continue to walk the streets and work in high-ranking positions in the government. In just the past two weeks there have been myriad examples.
Former Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff and current Republican Senate candidate Joe Arpaio, himself a convicted criminal, said after a speech on the floor of the Senate by Arizona Republican senator Jeff Flake that Flake's criticism of Trump was "a treason-type situation."
Former White House counselor Steve Bannon told author Michael Wolff for his book "Fire and Fury" that Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian attorney during the campaign was "treasonous" and "unpatriotic." Should Trump Jr. get the death penalty for taking the meeting? You don't have to like the Trumps to think not.
When whistleblower Chelsea Manning recently announced her candidacy for a US Senate seat in Maryland, the conservative Washington Examiner called her an "entitled traitor" and breathlessly said, "Chelsea Manning, former soldier, nearly convicted of treason, announced over the weekend he [sic] is running for US Senate from the state of Maryland." Wow. Never mind that Manning was never charged with treason.
So who has committed treason in US history? Not many people. There have been only 15 across the centuries. The first were Philip Vigol and John Mitchell, both sentenced to hang for their roles in the Whiskey Rebellion. They were pardoned by George Washington. Another was the great abolitionist John Brown, who was executed in 1859 for his attempt to organize armed resistance to slavery. The most recent were five individuals who took up arms against the US or who worked as propagandists against the US during World War II. They included Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose.
This perplexing use of the word "treason" is a testament to the vitriol with which Americans now conduct political discussions. But talk of treason has to stop right now. The only logical next step is that somebody in a position of authority, a particularly authoritarian President or Attorney General, for example, takes it to a prosecution. And at that point the Constitution is dead.
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