In Cincinnati on Monday, President Trump took a swipe at Congressional Democrats’ lack of enthusiasm during his State of the Union address. As is common for members of the opposition party at the annual event, most Democrats remained seated and kept their hands still as their Republican counterparts stood to cheer the president’s remarks.
“They were like death and un-American. Un-American,” Trump lamented. “Somebody said, ‘Treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not… Can we call that treason?”
In a word, no.
In the United States, treason has a specific legal definition, indeed it is the only crime specifically defined in our Constitution.
According to Article III, “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort” (emphasis added). This was a narrow definition even for the framers of the Constitution, and it was deliberate. They aimed to avoid the abuses caused by an overly-broad definition of treason in English law, which had expanded the crime in an effort to target the king’s enemies.
Of course, when most people describe something as “treason,” they aren’t rigorously applying the constitutional language. They are thinking of the more general definition: “the crime of betraying one’s country.”
For instance, when former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon described the July 2016 meeting of senior Trump campaign officials with Russian officials in Trump Tower as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic,” he presumably wasn’t trying to suggest that Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, or Paul Manafort had declared war on the United States.
Even understanding that people use the term loosely, failing to sufficiently applaud the president (or anyone else) meets no reasonable definition of treason. It is not just wrong for the president to describe it as such; it is irresponsible. It’s shameful even if the comment was made tongue-in-cheek.
Other nations follow the lead of the President of the United States. Usually, he speaks as a champion of the rule of law, but he sets an example even when he doesn’t. Already, authoritarian governments have adopted Trump’s phrase “fake news” to attack the press and dismiss dissent. Labeling disagreement as treason is even worse. The framers knew 2 1/2 centuries ago that it was dangerous to define treason too broadly. Our president should, too.
Joe Maschman is a Common Cause legal fellow.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: More Democracy Reforms