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The Constitution: Treason Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

Several people, who had been otherwise thoughtful and reasonable until the Trump Derangement Syndrome got them, responded to Clapper's and Yates's testimony on the 8th with variants of:

OMG Yates proved it! Flynn and the Trump campaign committed TREASON!

You all may remember from a few weeks ago that this is one of my pet peeves. My peevishness has not improved. In fact, I think at this point that we should just declare a Verbot on the word "treason" much as with the word "Nazi." No one seems to know what it means, and using it just adds Dummheit to any conversation in which it appears.

Yeah, no chance, I know. So let's at least explain what it means and, hopefully, why bandying the word about thoughtlessly is misleading at best, and dangerous at worst.

First, there's a reason that treason is the only crime fully defined in the Constitution. Here's the definition, from Article III Section 3:

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.

(The Constitution also gives Congress the power to punish counterfeiting and piracy, but leaves the definition and punishment to Congress.)

The founders had good reason to be concerned about the definition of treason, since they had arguably committed both simple and high treason against the Crown not many years before. They also had a good bit of recent (for them) history of the use of accusations of treason politically. As "Publius" (James Madison) said in the Federalist paper #43:

"As treason may be committed against the United States, the authority of the United States ought to be enabled to punish it. But as new-fangled and artificial treasons have been the great engines by which violent factions, the natural offspring of free government, have usually wreaked their alternate malignity on each other, the convention have, with great judgment, opposed a barrier to this peculiar danger, by inserting a constitutional definition of the crime, fixing the proof necessary for conviction of it, and restraining the Congress, even in punishing it, from extending the consequences of guilt beyond the person of its author."

In other words, the founders established a very narrow definition of treason in the Constitution specifically because accusations of treason have been the weapons "violent factions" — that is, political parties — have used to punish their opponents.