What Is Treason: With The Election Of Donald Trump, Many People Are Asking Just What Constitutes Treason In The United States

What is treason? As reported by The Boston Globe, with the election of Donald Trump have come accusations from some that his involvement with Russia’s Putin – and his various business interests around the world – lay Trump open to charges of treasonable behavior already. But just what does treason mean in the United States?

Donald Trump at Republican debate.
Donald Trump at Republican debate. [Image by Scott Olson/Getty Images]

For the most part, the laws existing in the early English colonies in the New World were reflections of England’s already existing common law. This was the case both in the definition of the offense and the type of punishment involved.

In the later revolutionary period, more precise definitions for treason were established, as well as higher standards of proof and less severe punishments. Many states used the language the Continental Congress and its Committee on Spies used to define treason, such as giving aid and comfort to the enemy or accepting commissions from the king.

The founding fathers attempted to provide the Constitution with a clear and unambiguous definition of treason. The United States Constitution defines treason specifically as levying war against the United States or giving aid and comfort to its enemies. Moreover, proving treason requires the testimony of at least two witnesses to the treasonous act or a confession made in open court.

On rare occasions, the Supreme Court has reviewed and given its rulings in treason cases. For instance, in 1807 the court ruled that for an individual to be found guilty of treason, more than what was called “constructive treason” was required.

Instead, the individual must join an assemblage of other men when levying war against the United States. In Chief Justice Marshall’s view, conspiracy that did not involve levying actual war against the United States did not amount to treason.

However, in another 1807 decision, the case of United States v Burr, Marshall took a slightly different stance. While he still objected to the idea of constructive treason, he found the Burr could still be found guilty of treason based to testimony provided by two witnesses.

These witnesses essentially said that Burr had actively provided aid to the treasonous assemblage, meaning that he – by extension – was levying war on the United States. Nevertheless, when taken together these two decisions presented a considerable barrier for prosecutors when it came to treason charges, since they require unambiguous evidence of direct participation in actual treason.

After the Burr decision, the most prominent cases of treason occurred during WWII. In one case, the court ruled that the simple giving of aid to an enemy wasn’t enough to constitute treason. Instead, the court suggested that the individual must have an intent to demonstrate their adherence to the enemy.

However, in the 1947 case of Haupt v United States the court chose to slightly relax the standard of proof for treason. They now held that eyewitness testimony could be supplemented by other evidence intended to demonstrate the treasonable intentions of the defendant. This could in include admissions of guilt made outside of court.

Owing to the fact that the prosecution of citizens for treason is so difficult and requires meeting such high constitutional requirements with regard to proof, subversive or other hostile acts carried out against the United States have in recent years been more likely to be prosecuted using other laws, such as those related to espionage or terrorism.

This kind of ambiguity about what is treason and what isn’t has often led to individuals being prosecuted on other grounds than treason even when their treason seems fairly clear – such as in the case of John Walker Lindh. It can even lead to a decision not to move forward with a prosecution at all. As noted by BillMoyers.com, whether any of these factors might apply to Donald Trump yet is an open question.

[Featured Image by Mark Makela/Getty Images]