Treason – Why Do They Do It?

The events of the past few days do not need recounting. By now, anyone who is awake is aware that the President of the United States adhered to and gave aid and comfort to an enemy of the United States. I define “enemy” here as a country that interferes in the internal politics of our democracy to prejudice the outcome of an election. My view is that because the Constitution sets out three separate forms of treason, only one of which involves “war” as such, it is possible to commit treason with a country as to which the United States is not technically “at war.” And I believe Trump clearly did that in Helsinki. No amount of later backpedaling and doubletalk can cancel what he did, especially recognizing that he insisted on a no-witnesses meeting with Putin that lasted for several hours.

The Constitutional definition of “treason” is stated as follows in Article III, Paragraph 3:

“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open court.”

I am aware that there is a lot of debate among legal scholars and historians about the exact meaning of Article III’s definitions and I don’t propose to recount or resolve them here. Instead, I am interested in the underlying question: why does anyone commit treason? In simpler terms, what would motivate an officer of the United States, and in particular the highest officer, to side with a foreign country engaged in hostile acts against his country when such alignment is resisted by most or all of his most senior and experienced advisors?

That question has now risen in importance as a result of the travesty of Donald Trump bowing and scraping before Vladimir Putin at the Finland joint press conference. Even members of Trump’s own party are asking the question because they conceive of no explanation that makes sense. His later “I meant ‘wouldn’t’ instead of ‘would’” warrants no more comment or analysis than just “look at the video and you will see he meant what he said: ‘would.’

The possible reasons for committing what I, and many knowledgeable commenters, believe was an act of treason include at least the following:

  • Ideological alignment on issues of overriding importance to the actor
  • Mental illness such as to fundamentally impair his ability to make decisions
  • Stupidity
  • Money/Avarice
  • Power
  • Blackmail

There may be some I haven’t thought of but for now this is the list. Let’s consider them one by one.

Ideological alignment on issues of overriding importance to the actor: I dismiss this one out of hand because Trump appears not to have a consistent ideology of any kind. He adopted the mantle of Conservative Republican when it suited his political ambitions but historically he has been all over the place on matters of ideology. There is no reason I have seen (confessing I might have missed it) that he would be attracted to communism or socialism. Ultra-right fascism is definitely a possibility, given his pre- and post-election tendency to morally equate the actions of white supremacist/Nazi/alt-Right extremists with those of the progressive Left. He clearly is attracted to authoritarian leaders – aside from Putin, Duterte of the Philippines comes to mind. Trump’s business history is that of a bully who pushes around and cheats people who are not in a position to fight back on an equal footing. 

Mental Illness:  Many experts and non-experts alike have addressed the question whether Trump has a “mental illness,” a “personality disorder,” or dementia of some kind. I don’t know the answer, of course, but am reluctant to argue that the fact of Trump’s seeing everything differently than I do is evidence of any of those things. Certainly, his behavior evinces a monstrously large ego, massive insecurity and need for approval and similar considerations, but whether those obvious characteristics would lead a person to commit treason seems weak. The same for his propensity to bully everyone to show that he is the bigger man, the most important person in the room/world.

Stupidity: To be clear, I believe Trump acts like an ignorant fool most all the time. He knows little or no history, reads little or nothing, declines to be briefed and appears to believe his massive intelligence overshadows all experts in all fields so that no one has anything useful to tell him. Still, can we conclude that he is just plain dumb? On the surface, at least, he is (was) an educated person. And he has had the resources to continue to be educated, though he seems to have affirmatively avoided taking in new information for decades. Trump is willfully uninformed about the important elements of his job, but does that mean his is too stupid, too ignorant to understand that aligning with a historical enemy of his country, run by a dictator (spare me the baloney about how Putin was “elected” in a democratic process in Russia)?

Money/Avarice:  Considering Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, the mounting evidence of secret business deals with Russians, his numerous lies about whether or not he has business relationships in Russia, and his and his family’s continuing to profit from incomes fed to his business empire by foreign interests, a plausible argument can be made that Trump would sell out his country simply to secure his business interests. It is possible that much of his past business activities have been funded by Russian interests. On the other hand, Trump is a very rich man and getting richer every day, often at the expense of the American taxpayer. So, would he commit treason for still more money? Possibly, because, for people like Trump, there is never enough money. The more they get, the more they want more. Always more.

Power: The president of the United States is reputedly the most powerful person in the world. What additional power would he expect to get by supporting a hostile foreign power against his own country? His party controls both houses of Congress already. He knows that cozying up to Vladimir Putin is worrisome or worse to even many Republican members of Congress who are otherwise slavering all over him to prove their loyalty (that he appears to value above all else, including competence). Yet, to borrow a contemporary meme, he persists. The power explanation rings true somewhat, especially when combined with the Money/Avarice option. It may be that my list oversimplifies a multi-element explanation. The answer may be a combination of personality disorder/willful ignorance/grasping for more personal and family wealth and power. Could be. But there is at least one other choice.

Blackmail: Since the disclosure of the Steele dossier (see https://bit.ly/2nFuZn4), rumors and stories have continued to surface about Trump being a Russian asset or at least subject to blackmail related either to personal misconduct in Russia or corrupt business dealings there. These views have gained new momentum in the wake of Trump’s bending the knee to Putin in Helsinki. There is no known way at the moment to verify this, although one hopes that the Mueller investigation is looking very deeply into the web of Trump-Russia connections and Trump’s inexplicable fondness for a historically hostile power. The extraordinary detail in the indictment of the 12 Russian hackers is an indication of the sophistication and thoroughness of U.S. counterintelligence expertise when aggressively applied in the hunt for traitors and their enablers.

Bottom Line: Spoiler alert: anticlimax coming.

I suspect that the awful reality is that, as suggested above, the explanation for Trump’s conduct toward Russia and Putin has multiple sources. Treason, especially by a president, is so serious that we must not yield to the temptation to believe in the simplest “explanation,” an “obvious” single cause.

Avoiding impatience is also important. Having conducted a corruption investigation early in my career, involving confidential “inside” sources, a conspiracy among multiple parties, some with “stellar reputations,” and serious efforts by numerous parties to hide the truth, I can attest to the importance of letting the painstaking, often tedious, investigative work proceed to whatever conclusion it will reach. The demands of Trump’s Republican enablers in Congress and elsewhere to “end the investigation” because it “has produced no evidence of collusion” are simply partisan and delusional wishful thinking. They have no idea what information is building inside the Mueller investigation and will not know, as we will not, until Mueller decides to conclude his work and report his findings.

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