With the news continuously leaking out of the White House, accusations of treason have started to pop up more frequently, particularly on social media. Treason is generally defined as the crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to kill or overthrow the government. Of course, in the Trump administration, no one has tried to kill the president or overthrow the government (yet), so accusations of treason might seem a little overblown. In fact, treason is a serious allegation that has not been leveled too frequently in the history of this country.
Of course, in the early years as the country was still figuring things out, several individuals who led rebellions were convicted of treason, but eventually pardoned by the President, namely the leaders of the Whiskey and Fries rebellions. Certainly, the Civil War era was rife for treasonous behavior: at least two people were convicted and executed for treason against Virginia for attempting to organize armed resistance to slavery. Perhaps one of the most extreme reactions was against William Bruce Mumford, convicted of treason and later hanged for tearing down a U.S. flag during the Civil War.
Things quieted down until about the 1920’s – the jazz era got to someone’s head. Walter Allen took part in the 1921 Miner’s march, convicted of treason, sentenced to ten years in prison and fined, but eventually disappeared while out on bail as his case was on appeal to the Supreme Court. As World War II began to affect the home front, spies were caught and accused of treason. Germans sent native Germans, including naturalized U.S. citizen Herbert Haupt to American via U-Boat during the war to act as spies. Unfortunately for Haupt, two of the other spies told the American authorities, and he and his U-Boat comrades eventually faced a military tribunal. Six of the eight were sentenced to death and all were executed on August 8, 1942 in Washington D.C. by electric chair. It took Haupt a full seven minutes to die in this manner. Others were accused of espionage and treason, but no one has been executed since 1942. Or course, the Rosenbergs is one of the most well-known cases of U.S. citizens executed, but they were not convicted of treason, for reasons explained below. Rather, they were executed for their conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union, transmitting information about the Manhattan project and other atomic bomb projects. The case is fascinating, as most legal scholars admit that they were guilty of espionage, but their case was full of judicial improprieties and therefore execution was probably inappropriate. They were executed in 1953. The last conviction of treason was in 1952.
The latest controversies concerning American citizens and acts of treason – aside from the Trump administration – are Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Several Senators called Edward Snowden a traitor after releasing information about the NSA surveilling American citizens. However, the Constituion defines treason with specificity: “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. The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.” Snowden did not levy war against the United States in the release of these documents (nor did Chelsea Manning). Providing ‘aid and comfort’ has limits – you must be aiding and abetting a country that the U.S. is actively engaged at war in. Similarly, that is why the Rosenbergs could not be charged with treason because, at the time, the United States was not at war with the Soviet Union. Espionage provisions typically are the gap-fillers for activities that appear treasonous when the U.S. is not at war.
So, the activities of the Trump campaign before ascending to the Presidency are probably not treason, even if investigations eventually show an improper relationship between Moscow and Trump surrogates. However, anyone accused of improper behavior can still be charged under various espionage acts, many of which carry long prison terms and death sentences.