Media headlines went into a frenzy following revelations that Donald J. Trump Jr. met with a Russia-linked lawyer to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr. released a chain of emails Tuesday related to the meeting. Amidst the discussions surrounding Trump Jr., numerous Democratic leaders such as Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton and others have leveled descriptions of Trump Jr.’s actions as “treason” and “treasonous.”
The U.S. Constitution specifically defines the crime of “treason” as a crime that can only take place during acts or times of war. Trump Jr.’s actions do not legally qualify as treason based on this specific constitutional definition.
The crime of “treason” is the only crime specifically defined by the U.S. Constitution.
Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution states: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
The operative phrase here is “Treason… shall consist only in levying war against [the U.S.].” As cold as U.S.-Russia ties have been, Russia is not legally an “enem[y]” for the simple reason that the U.S. isn’t at war with Russia. The U.S. and Russia diplomatically recognize each other and have active treaties and pacts.
Given that the U.S. is not in a state of war with Russia and that Trump Jr. was also not colluding to wage an armed insurrection against the U.S., his actions – from what’s been made by public by Trump Jr. and various media outlets – are not legally “treason” or “treasonous.”
Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution goes on to explain, “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.”
This high and specifically defined bar of evidence like “two witnesses” or public “confession” is indicative of the serious legal scrutiny warranted to any allegations of treason.
When asked by a reporter whether Trump Jr.’s actions constituted treason, Kaine replied, “That, the investigation – it, it’s not – nothing is proven yet. But, we’re now beyond obstruction of justice in terms of what’s being investigated. This is moving into perjury, false statements, and even into potentially treason.”
Trump Jr.’s discussions and possible collusion with figures linked to the Russian state may perhaps be ethically defined as “treasonous.” Legally speaking, however, any claim that Trump Jr. committed “treason” or that his actions were “treasonous” is false.
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Editor’s Note: This fact-check has been updated with Sen. Tim Kaine’s comment to provide the utmost clarity.
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