Don’t dare call it treason

The accusation by a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee

Steve Benen is right to be outraged at an article by Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana that includes this sentence:

President Obama is disadvantaging the United States one step at a time and undermining this country’s national defense on purpose.

[emphasis in original]

This is unforgiveable, and the fact that Fleming is a member of the House Armed Services Committee makes it worse. But somehow I doubt that all the wingnuts who got the vapors over Move-On’s dumb “General Betray-Us” ad will react with comparable fury now.

Benen is right to say that:

Ignorance is commonplace. Belligerence is routine. Stupidity has become habitual throughout much of the caucus. But let’s not overlook the fact that Fleming spoke directly to President Obama’s motives. Fleming argued that the president isn’t just mistaken, but rather, is deliberately trying to make the United States less safe and more vulnerable.

And I hope (but don’t expect) that the media will finally start doing their job and exposing the batsh!t craziness of most of what now passes for Republican discourse, rather than simply reporting it on a he-said, she-said basis.

But Benen is wrong when he adds:

In other words, Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana effectively accused the President of the United States — the Commander in Chief during two wars — of treason.

“Treason” is an ordinary English word meaning “betrayal.” It’s also a technical term in law, the name of a crime. That crime is defined in the Constitution:

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.

So even if Fleming’s charge were true, it wouldn’t be a charge of treason, properly speaking. Ever since Joe McCarthy, the right wing has tossed around the accusation of “treason” pretty freely. But it’s a bad habit, and not one to imitate.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

21 thoughts on “Don’t dare call it treason”

  1. Actually, that phrase "giving them (the enemies) aid and comfort" would certainly include willfully weakening our national defense — which Rep. Fleming clearly accused President Obama of doing, and which President Obama certainly has not done. So I would say Rep. Fleming's accusation is what Benen says it is, a recklessly irresponsible accusation of treason.

  2. No no no no no.

    The Framers were aware of the history of English treason law, and they deliberately required a "overt act" that involved "making war on the United States or adhering to their enemies." "Aid and comfort' is just a gloss on "adherence." George W. Bush's subservience to the House of Saud made him a miserable President, but it didn't make him a traitor.

  3. Fleming implied that President Obama is (for some strange reason) deliberately violating his oath of office to ¨… preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States¨. If true, this would presumably be an impeachable offence under ¨other high crimes and misdemeanors¨. But what would be its name? Perhaps GWB, Governing While Black.

  4. Lincoln at Cooper Union, on southern insinuations that the Republicans were involved in John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry:

    "If any member of our party is guilty in that matter, you know it or you do not know it. If you do know it, you are inexcusable for not designating the man and proving the fact. If you do not know it, you are inexcusable for asserting it, and especially for persisting in the assertion after you have tried and failed to make the proof. You need to be told that persisting in a charge which one does not know to be true, is simply malicious slander."

    Will any member of the House get up and tell Congressentity Fleming to introduce articles of impeachment, and designate the particular impeachable acts, if he knows his accusation to be true? Can he be asked to put up or shut up? In the age of Fox News, are there any such things as standards of truth? Or will he just get a friendly interview from Sean Hannity?

  5. "President Obama is disadvantaging the United States one step at a time and undermining this country’s national defense on purpose."

    'On purpose' is b.s. I'd attribute it to stupidity rather than purpose.

  6. "Fleming implied that President Obama is (for some strange reason) deliberately violating his oath of office to ¨… preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States¨. "

    Well, yeah. Like many people in the legal community, he has concluded that our Constitution is severely deficient in numerous ways, mostly relating to limits on the power he might exercise. Like many in the legal community, he despairs of being able to formally amend these deficiencies away, and so does not even try. So, again, like many in the legal community, he has concluded that the appropriate response is to undermine the Constitution by bad faith 'interpretation'.

    It's a violation of his oath of office, but if you removed everybody violating the oath in that respect from office, Congress wouldn't even have a quorum. This tacit conspiracy to make sure the Constitution doesn't actually get in the way of the government doing what people who don't like it think should be done has controlled the federal government for all my life, and I don't see that changing.

  7. Gee, if you limit charges of treason to what the Constitution says, you deprive Ann Coulter of half her texts, and probably the Teabaggers of more. (The silence might be refreshing, of course.)

    A number of smart people think that doing a mutual reduction of nuclear arms, while not escalating the race elsewhere by pushing the latest technology, will make the US as well as the rest of the world more secure rather than less. Many of Brett B's posts suggest a good deal more intelligence than the one just above this: one may agree or disagree with the President, but to say he is deliberately interpreting his powers in a way that will violate some objective standard of the meaning of his oath is ludicrous.

  8. You're right in urging restraint and caution when using the term "treason," but I am sure that the honorable-in-theory Mister Fleming has no similar qualms. His words strongly imply treasonous intent on the part of the President, and if he has not used "treason" in connection with this charge, it can only be because he has either a wise counsellor who has told him to bite his tongue when it comes to the T word, or an inexplicable but welcome gap in his functional vocabulary.

  9. Brett: Glenn Greenwald and others have argued that Obama is interpreting his presidential powers far too extensively, for purposes of national security: in other words, to defend the country and its constitution, he is violating the limits the latter places on his authority. You are free to support Glenn. But Fleming´s claim is that Obama is deliberately undermining the security of the country, and the capabilities for its defence the President controls as Commander in Chief. The two charges are opposite. You can´t assimilate the sane accusation and the crazy one.

  10. "Like many people in the legal community, he has concluded that our Constitution is severely deficient in numerous ways, mostly relating to limits on the power he might exercise. Like many in the legal community, he despairs of being able to formally amend these deficiencies away, and so does not even try. So, again, like many in the legal community, he has concluded that the appropriate response is to undermine the Constitution by bad faith ‘interpretation’."

    Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution gives the President the power, "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties." Obama planned, last I heard, to submit the new proposed treaty to the Senate. This is a bad faith interpretation? I do not get it. Brett may be referring to something other than the matter at hand on this new treaty negotiation. But Obama's action here is clearly within the enumerated powers of his office.

    Fleming has made an accusation of a deliberate dereliction of duty, and if he means it, he should bring articles of impeachment to the floor of the House. It really looks like a case of put up or shut up.

  11. "Brett: Glenn Greenwald and others have argued that Obama is interpreting his presidential powers far too extensively, for purposes of national security: in other words, to defend the country and its constitution, he is violating the limits the latter places on his authority."

    Um, "uphold and defend"? "I destroyed the Constitution in order to save it." isn't contemplated by that oath.

    "Brett may be referring to something other than the matter at hand on this new treaty negotiation. But Obama’s action here is clearly within the enumerated powers of his office."

    Yup, I was referring to other matters, negotiating a treaty, no matter how bad it is, is clearly within the President's authority. Unlike, say, attempting to implement it after the Senate doesn't ratify.

  12. “…unlike, say, attempting to implement it after the Senate doesn’t ratify”

    Well, Brett, you may be correct in presupposing that the Senate will not ratify, but (as my old first sergeant used to say) don’t bet your virginity on it. The last several major nuclear reduction treaties have passed the Senate with more than 90 votes. The GOP in the Senate includes a few grownups like Richard Lugar of Indiana, who is already on board. If Sarah Palin has the clout now to define the party on this issue, your conjecture may come true.

  13. I am certainly not an attorney or a constitutional law expert, but I would think that deliberately weakening the country's defenses, under the right circumstances, could certainly qualify as adhering to the enemy and giving them aid.

    That, incidentally, is exactly what Rep. Fleming and his fellow Republicans are doing when they deliberately attempt to destroy the president's ability to function.

  14. A president may cause his administration to abide by the provisions of signed treaties before they are ratified. That's what happened to Salt II, signed by Carter, kept by Reagan, and only finally passed the Senate under Bush the Wiser (after a decade of honoring its limits although not yet ratified).

  15. I could have sworn that both the definition of, and punishments for, treason had been extended far beyond the narrow Constitutional treatment by the US Patriot Act(s) and the Military Commissions Act. Have I missed something here ??

  16. I'm a right-winger, so you guys can feel free to ignore me because obviously I'm an idiot, BUT – Didn't Obama get a Nobel Peace Prize? The prize, as described in Nobel's will, should go to the person who "shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses"

    I copied that straight off of wikipedia.

    It is not a big jump from 'the abolition or reduction of standing armies' to 'undermining this country's national defense on purpose'.

    What I'm trying to say is this: Rep. Fleming's factual claim is very, very close to that of the Nobel Prize people. What you should be saying is something more like, "Yes, he's weakening our defense position; But it needs to be weakened. We're wasting money. It's making our allies pissed at us. The world hates us. War only breeds more war, etc etc"

    I mean, don't let me put words in your mouth.

  17. Well, Matt, Sen. Lugar and the Joint Chiefs want this. So Congressentity Fleming's factual claim is that the top Pentagon brass are intentionally undermining the nation's defenses. Their position and Obama's position are one and the same. Fleming should be going after them as well.

    I don't think you are obviously an idiot, but you have obviously not thought this through.

  18. Actually, pace Matt, it is a big jump from "‘the abolition or reduction of standing armies’ to ‘undermining this country’s national defense on purpose.’" A standing army above a particular size does not necessarily strengthen the national defense, because, if it means that "We’re wasting money. It’s making our allies pissed at us. The world hates us. War only breeds more war, etc etc,” then it weakens our defense position rather than strengthening it.

  19. "I could have sworn that both the definition of, and punishments for, treason had been extended far beyond the narrow Constitutional treatment by the US Patriot Act(s) and the Military Commissions Act. Have I missed something here ??"

    That it's been decades since they bothered leveling treason charges against anybody they were actually in a position to bring to trial? Constitutionally, treason is so hard to prove they don't bother with it, since they've created other laws with essentially identical effect, but which aren't subject to the constitutional safeguards surrounding treason, because the name is different.

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