Did Donald Trump Jr actually commit treason by meeting a Russian lawyer?

Did Donald Trump actually commit treason by meeting a Russian lawyer for information in the election campaign?

The emails released by the President's son are the latest scandal to engulf the presidency

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The latest storm to engulf the White House has resulted in a very serious allegation being levelled against the eldest son of Donald Trump. Perhaps the most serious allegation of them all, in fact.

On Tuesday Donald Trump Jr released a series of emails which revealed he – as well as Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, now a senior White House advisor - met a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, at Trump Tower in June 2016.

The emails made abundantly clear that Trump Jr thought Veselnitskaya was in the pay of the Kremlin. Moreover his contact, Rob Goldstone, explicitly promised incriminating information on Hillary Clinton - a promise to which Trump Jr responded "I love it."

Trump Jr has faced a volley of accusations in the wake of the email dump, the most serious of which - expounded by our very own Julia Hartley-Brewer amongst others - suggesting that the scion of the US President committed treason.

Treason is a capital offence in the US, so anyone found guilty of perpetrating it could face the death penalty - that's how weighty an offence it is. No-one has been convicted of treason under US law since 1952, so it's not an accusation to be bandied about lightly.

But could Trump Jr's meeting with Russian representatives constitute this rarest-of-the-rare offence? Do the accusations stand up to scrutiny?

Well, when you look at the constitution, it doesn't look that likely. The founding pillar of the US legal system defines the act as treason as “levying war” against the US, or aiding its enemies in a time of conflict. Trump certainly didn't commit the first offence and it would be very difficult to prove that he committed the second, given the US and Russia aren't at war with one another.

For further evidence, let's take a look at some of those Americans who have been found guilty of treason in the past.

John Fries. This hero of the American revolution led an assault on the local US Marshall in Pennsylvania, forcing him to free a group of prisoners. Prosecutors argued that, by preventing a public official from doing his duty, Fries had committed treason. A jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to hang, before being pardoned by President Adams.

John Brown. In the febrile years leading up to the Civil War, Brown, an ardent opponent of slavery, led a raid on the Federal arsenal of Harper's Ferry in the hope of spreading insurrection across Virginia and arming the local slave population. Seven people were killed in the assault.

A daguerrotype of Brown from 1846.

Martin James Monti. This air force pilot flew his Lockheed P-38 to Milan, Italy, and tried to join Hitler's Waffen SS at the height of World War II.

Robert Henry Best. A skilled broadcaster,  he was in Vienna when war broke out and began broadcasting Nazi propaganda from Germany, piping prophecies of America's imminent destruction directly back to his home country.

Iva Toguri D'Aquino. Nicknamed the 'Tokyo Rose,' she was an American citizen who participated in the broadcast of English-language propaganda to US troops in the South Pacific during the war with Japan.

As these examples suggest, treason typically applies to acts of military aggression against the United States, or the abetting of America's enemies during times of active conflict. Trump Jr's indiscretion does not fall into either category, no matter what his many opponents and detractors might say.

A more obvious comparison might be the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were found to have given information to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But that was an altogether more hostile period, when diplomatic relations between the Kremlin and White House were almost non-existence, and even then the Rosenbergs were found guilty of espionage, not treason.

There are certainly other offences which could be applicable in the case of Trump Jr. For instance, campaign finance law in America forbids the acceptance of money, other things of value, or contributions from foreign bodies or establishments - and it could certainly be argued Veselnitskaya's offer of assistance falls under this particular aegis.

However, it would take a lot more to make a charge of treason stick - and it seems that, for all the outrage Trump Jr's actions have caused, the case is nowhere near strong enough.