If It’s Not Treason, What Do We Call It?

When Donald Trump takes the oath of office, it will mark the third time in the last half century the United States has installed a Republican president who allegedly worked with a hostile foreign power to sabotage American interests and the sitting U.S. president, in order to get himself elected. Read that sentence again slowly and consider the implications.

In 1968, Republican candidate Richard Nixon worked behind the scenes to scuttle Vietnam peace talks. Nixon knew that if the incumbent president LBJ agreed to terms with the South Vietnamese government, the resulting peace would benefit not only American soldiers in danger but also his Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey. So Nixon’s camp sent private messages to the South Vietnamese promising better terms if they waited until he was elected president. When LBJ learned of the sabotage, recordings show that he described it as treason. Nixon won the election, and the Vietnam War continued for years afterward.

In 1980, Democratic president Jimmy Carter was dealing with the Iranian hostage crisis, in which 52 Americans were being held captive. On April 24th of that year, Carter attempted a daring rescue mission of the hostages. Had it succeeded Carter would have been hailed as a hero. But the mission’s failure led to a long slog of tense negotiations. There have been persistent allegations by Carter officials involved in the negotiations that Republican candidate Ronald Reagan’s team negotiated with the Iranians to delay the release of the hostages until after the election in order to hamstring President Carter in advance of the vote. Whatever the truth of these serious accusations, Iran deliberately chose to release the hostages on the day of Reagan’s inauguration as a political gift to the incoming Republican administration. The hostages were released in accordance with diplomatic concessions made by Carter’s team, not in fear of Reagan’s mythical prowess. The Reagan administration then proceeded to engage in secret arms deals with Iran–both in exchange for hostages in Lebanon and to fund murderous right-wing paramilitary death squads in Central America.

In 2016, the entire American intelligence community, alongside private cyber-security firms, have been unanimous in accusing Russian intelligence services of hacking the private communications of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta–as well as over a dozen Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives. It was an electronic burglary of private campaign data that dwarfed the Watergate break-in by orders of magnitude. The resulting disproportionate media coverage of the released emails was crucial in helping to give Donald Trump a narrow electoral college victory, despite losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots.

We will not know the extent of the Trump campaign’s cooperation and involvement with this activity for months or even years. But we do already have some very disturbing facts. First and foremost, during his last press conference of the campaign Donald Trump explicitly asked Russia to hack 30,000 of Clinton’s emails (he later claimed to have only done it in jest.) There are reports that Russia has been cultivating Trump for years. There is the bizarre communication between a server in Trump tower and a Russian bank tied to the Kremlin that may or may not be innocent, but so far no one in the Trump organization has provided a credible explanation for it. Rather than condemn Russian interference in the election as it might have been wiser politically to do if he were the innocent beneficiary, Trump has taken the bizarre strategy of denying and minimizing it entirely. We know that Trump’s one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort worked for the Kremlin while living in Trump tower, and was only fired when the outrage over his Russian connections became too much to ignore.  It’s possible that Trump is innocent in all this, but the preponderance of the evidence suggests otherwise.

Some, like LBJ back in 1968, have used “treason” to describe this sort of thing. However, the word “treason” has a very specific constitutional definition, and there are dire consequences to throwing the word around recklessly. What Nixon, Reagan and Trump are alleged to have done probably doesn’t rise to the Constitutional definition.

But if it’s not treason, we need a good word to describe this sort of unpatriotic, self-interested sabotage that seems increasingly commonplace on the part of Republican candidates for president.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.