Critics of Trump Have a New Word in Their Vocabulary: Treason
Posted July 17, 2018 1:54 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — John Brennan spent a career in the CIA defending the United States against its enemies. For decades, that meant terrorists, rogue regimes or the Russians. For him now, it means the president of the United States.
When Brennan accused President Donald Trump of treason following Monday’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, it opened a floodgate. The New York Daily News used the banner headline “OPEN TREASON” on its cover. Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel called it treason on their late-night shows.
In a presidency without precedent, mark another moment for the history books.
While the T-word has been thrown around on the fringes of the political debate about other presidents or politicians from time to time, never in the modern era has it become part of the national conversation in such a prominent way. Never in anyone’s lifetime has a president engendered such a wave of discussion about whether his real loyalty was to a foreign power over his own country.
To the president’s defenders, this all sounds like a sign of what they often call Trump Derangement Syndrome. That he drives his critics to such extremes, they argue, says more about them than it does about Trump. But the president has had fewer such defenders in the last 24 hours, with prominent Republicans and even some of Trump’s traditional allies lambasting his performance and distancing themselves from him.
The list of Republicans criticizing Trump’s deferential meeting with Putin includes not just the usual suspects like Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska but friends of the president like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who called it “the most serious mistake of his presidency,” and the conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which called it a “national embarrassment.”
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, a former CIA operative, suggested that Trump had become a stooge of the Russians. “I’ve seen Russian intelligence manipulate many people over my professional career and I never would have thought that the US President would become one of the ones getting played by old KGB hands,” he wrote on Twitter.
Even before the meeting, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, who lost the Republican presidential nomination to Trump in 2016, suggested that Americans read “The Manchurian Candidate,” the classic Cold War thriller in which the scion of a political family turns out to be a brainwashed sleeper agent for the communists.
There was a time when mainstream political actors and media commentators would never use words like “treason” or “traitor” to describe a president. Even in the norm-shattering 18 months of Trump’s tenure, the term until now had been relegated mainly to the angriest and most conspiratorial corners of Twitter and the internet.
But Trump’s meeting with Putin seemed to change the discourse in a dramatic way. With the Russian leader at his side in Helsinki, Trump effectively took the word of a former KGB officer over that of U.S. intelligence agencies on the question of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Asked at a news conference if he would condemn the Russian cyber operation, Trump chose instead to condemn the FBI for investigating it.
He uttered not a word of specific criticism of Russia despite its illegal seizure of a neighbor’s territory from Ukraine or the nerve agent poisoning of a Kremlin enemy on British soil. And Putin contributed to the perception of an unusual coziness when he confirmed that he had supported Trump in the 2016 election because he was confident the American businessman would be friendlier to Moscow.
That was too much for Brennan, who had already emerged as one of Trump’s most vocal critics.
“Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors,'” Brennan, who served under presidents of both parties and rose to CIA director under President Barack Obama, wrote on Twitter. “It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”
Within hours, others chimed in. “If you’re wondering whether or not Vladimir Putin has an incriminating video of Donald Trump, we now know beyond a treasonable doubt that he does,” Kimmel said on his late-night show. “He better. This wasn’t a good day for Donald Trump. We haven’t seen an American so owned by a Russian since ‘Rocky IV.'”
On his own show, Colbert used a calculator to add up what he saw as the elements of Trump’s performance. “OK, egotism plus naïveté times false equivalence equals — yeah, treason,” he said.
Max Boot, the onetime conservative who has become one of Trump’s sharpest critics, noted in a column in The Washington Post on Monday that accusing him of treason was once unthinkable. No longer. “If anyone is ‘the enemy of the people,’ it is Trump himself,” he wrote. Trump returned to the White House on Monday night as protesters outside the gate shouted, “Welcome home, traitor.” Michael Moore, the liberal filmmaker, wrote on Twitter that “the Commander-in-Chief is a traitor.” Even Dictionary.com trolled the president, tweeting out a definition: “Traitor: A person who commits treason by betraying his or her country.” It later said that searches for “treason” had increased by 2,943 percent.
Eliot A. Cohen, a former State Department official under President George W. Bush and a longtime critic of Trump, wrote on Twitter: “The word treason is so strong that we must use it carefully. But that press conference has brought the President of the United States right up to that dark, dark shore.”
Trump responded by calling Brennan a “very bad guy” in an interview with Fox News. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., likewise scorned Brennan. “This is coming from the guy who voted for the Communist Party USA candidate in 1976,” he wrote on Twitter. “Give me a break.” Brennan has acknowledged voting for Gus Hall, the Communist candidate in 1976, as a rebellious young man “signaling my unhappiness with the system,” but never considered himself a Communist.
Trump’s supporters said the president’s critics have gone off the deep end. Lou Dobbs, the Fox Business Network host, said Monday night that Trump’s opponents overlooked times when Obama tried to influence foreign elections, such as when his former aides worked against the re-election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel.
He said Trump has made great progress in foreign policy by crippling the Islamic State group and holding unfair trading partners to account. “I mean, these are fools who are prattling off their complaints today about the way he conducted himself in a joint press conference with the president of Russia,” Dobbs said. “It’s idiotic.” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., seconded him. “I would completely agree with that,” he said. “We all ought to start rowing in the same direction, let’s get everybody to work, let’s do the great things that the president has fought for for the American economy so that we can beat our competitors on the battlefield rather than in sniping at each other through the media.”
Treason is listed by the Constitution as one of the specific justifications for impeachment along with bribery and other undefined “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as the framers put it. “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort,” the Constitution says.
No sitting president has ever been formally charged with treason, nor for that matter have many other Americans since the days of Aaron Burr or the political leaders who defected to the Confederacy during the Civil War. The closest was former President John Tyler, who sided with the South against the Union and was elected to the Confederate Congress but died before taking his seat. Franklin Pierce, another former president, was a Southern sympathizer and sometimes accused informally of treason.
For Trump, the larger threat has been the possibility that his foes would seek to impeach him if Democrats take the House in midterm elections on grounds of obstruction of justice or some sort of charge stemming from the campaign. Trump has repeatedly and heatedly insisted there was “no collusion” with Russia during the campaign, even though his son, son-in-law and campaign chairman met with Russians who were said to be offering incriminating information about Hillary Clinton on behalf of the Russian government.
The president’s critics reach for words like treason and traitor because they, like others, are searching for an explanation for actions that are so different from those of any previous president. Other presidents, including Obama and Bush, sought to build good relations with Putin’s Russia, but none seemed so willing for so long to overlook hostile Russian actions or side with Moscow over the agencies of their own government.
Brennan said on “Today” on NBC News on Tuesday that he understood how charged the term was when he used it, but said the events justified it. “I’m sure Ronald Reagan listening to what Mr. Trump was saying could not believe it and is rolling over right now unfortunately in his grave,” he said.