July 18, 2018 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Why We’re Talking About Treason
What makes this time any worse than every other time?
Treason is in the air. Beyond Donald Trump’s throwing his country under the bus while standing next to Russian Crypto-Czar Vladimir Putin, we should ask why.
It’s not like we haven’t been here before. How many times has the president accused Special Counsel Robert Mueller of conducting a “WITCH HUNT”? How many times has the president dismissed the Kremlin’s information warfare against Hillary Clinton to help him win? How many times has the president told us that he asked the enemy if the enemy attacked us and that enemy assured him that the enemy didn’t.
I’ve lost count. Because I’ve lost count, I have to wonder why treason is a topic so serious that it’s getting the “news analysis” treatment in the front-page of the august New York Times. Peter Baker even felt the need to spell out what it means:
Treason is listed by the Constitution as one of the specific justifications for impeachment along with bribery and other undefined “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as the framers put it. “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 Constitution says.
I can’t say for sure why treason is in the air when it was not months ago, but I have a few thoughts. One is that the Helsinki summit came after the US Department of Justice indicted a dozen Russian spies for conspiracy. Unlike past indictments, this one connected directly the cyber-attacks of 2016 to the Russian military. This spurred calls for Trump to cancel. Critics warned that by shaking the enemy’s hand, the president would be rewarding him for violating our sovereignty. In keeping his appointment, the president gave the impression of validating their concerns.
My other thought has to do with my long-held view about voter behavior: most people most of the time have something better to do than pay attention to politics. I tend to think this rule of thumb holds true in every single instance all the way up until it doesn’t. By that, I mean (cheekily) that most people most of the time ignore politics until they can’t anymore, as was the case when the president of the United States stood on foreign soil to accuse his country of making life hard for Russia.
“Trump takes Putin’s side” was the A1 headline of newspapers across the country. It was at the top of the 6:30 p.m. broadcast television news. It was everywhere. Yes, Trump (sorta) corrected himself Tuesday, but it was too late for people like James Comey. The former FBI director, the one Trump fired, said on Twitter everyone needs to vote for the Democrats in the fall. The fate of the country depends on it.
So most people most of the time can ignore politics until the media makes ignoring politics virtually impossible. This is the reverse of what normally happens. Usually, Trump will say something, it doesn’t matter what, and that statement will be reported far and wide. That Trump takes no action to back up his off-the-cuff statement does not matter. What matters to Trump is that the news media repeats what he says. Partisans takes sides, everyone squabbles, and Trump comes out the winner.
When the media does not play along is when Trump gets in trouble. People start seeing him for what he is. This was the case during the (ongoing) border crisis. The media, especially television media, could not play along with the president while broadcasting images of crying mothers and wailing children. That was a moment of rare exposure for Trump. People with better things to do than pay attention to politics all of a sudden were paying attention. The president, knowing this, retreated.
Same thing this time, I think. No president in modern memory looked as deferential to the enemy as Trump did. It was pitiful. It was frightening. It was momentous. Seeing this, seeing that he might have looked weak to the Republican base, Trump tried to walk back what he said. But it was too late. The moment stuck. For good, I hope.
Treason is in the air. Is this more than talk? I don’t think anyone can say. If it is, American will one day look back to see that it all began in Helsinki.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.