Why 'treason' doesn't quite describe Trump's actions in Helsinki

Treason might feel like the right word to describe Donald Trump's behaviour, argues one law professor, but its narrow legal definition may mean it's not the right charge.

Treason has very narrow legal definition, says law professor

U.S. President Donald Trump met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki Monday. Trump endorsed Putin's denial of meddling in U.S. elections, but later backtracked. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
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Treason might feel like the right word to describe the behaviour of U.S. President Donald Trump, but it may not be the right charge, according to a professor of constitutional law.

There is a "lack of a good word to describe behaviour like Trump's," said Carlton Larson, a professor at the University of California.

"The most natural word to fall on — when you see the president doing what he did — is treason," he told The Current's guest host Duncan McCue.

It doesn't feel stable, it doesn't feel secure, journalist David Corn tells Duncan McCue. 1:23

The legal definition of treason — which is the only crime defined in the U.S. constitution — is "limited to levying war against the United States, or adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort," Larson explained.

But treason has a colloquial meaning — a person who betrays a country.

"It's quite possible to betray the country, to put other countries' interests ahead of our own, and to do things that severely undermine the country, without technically being a traitor," Larson said.

Trump met with President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki Monday, when he endorsed the Russian leader's denial of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. He has since backtracked — saying he misspoke — but has faced numerous accusations of treason from both sides of the political divide.

Even if the Mueller investigation finds that Trump or his campaign worked with Russia to influence the election, he said, the charge would not apply unless the U.S. was in open war with Russia.

Journalist David Corn talks to Duncan McCue about whether Trump's meeting with Putin will affect mid-terms. 1:14

But just because something can't be punished as treason, he added, doesn't mean it can't be punished as something else.

"We have a whole array of other laws including laws that prohibit foreign countries from interfering with our elections," he said. "Those laws can be readily enforced against people who commit those types of violations."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.


This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal and Richard Raycraft.

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