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Whatever Trump Jr. did, it's not treason

The issue:

Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting last year with a Kremlin-linked lawyer — and the release of the emails leading up to that meeting — have led some in Washington to start uttering the word "treason," chief among them Sen. Tim Kaine.

Why it matters:

Trump Jr.'s interactions with Russian officials may very well get him in trouble under federal campaign laws — and they certainly run afoul of established norms in presidential campaigning — but they're not treason. Indeed, the scope of a treason prosecution is so narrow that it's hard to fathom a Trump official ever facing down a treason charge as a result of the Russia scandal.

The facts:

  • Treason is the only crime specifically outlined in the Constitution, granting Congress the power to prohibit treason as it sees fit.
  • The United States Code regarding treason is as follows: "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."
  • Treason charges and convictions are exceedingly rare. The number of federal indictments for treason since the Constitution's inception is only in the thirties. And the number of convictions barely reaches double digits. Moreover, no American citizen has been executed for treason against the United States.
  • Defined: The phrase "levies war against them, or adheres to their enemies" is a crucial point for the Russia scandal because it limits a treason prosecution to a wartime crime, which law professor Carlson F.W. Larson describes in The Washington Post. Even at the height of the Cold War — an undeclared war — Soviet agents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage, not treason.
  • It goes both ways: On the flip side, expect some right-wing commentators to utter the word "treason" about the White House leaks that led to the Trump Jr. story breaking in the New York Times. But that's not treason either. Some leaks to the media — especially those containing classified information — might be violations of federal law, but they do not constitute adherence to any enemies of the United States.
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