The truth about treason

Explaining Trump’s accusations against Democrats


Deana Spoleti speaks as President Donald Trump listens during a speech a visit to Sheffer Corporation, Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, in Blue Ash, Ohio. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

A Sheffer Corporation factory in Ohio became the most recent stop for President Donald Trump on Monday, Feb. 5. There, as he fondly discussed his performance during his first State of the Union address, he also casually accused the Democrats in attendance of “treason” for not showing their support with applause. 

“Can we call that treason?” Trump said during the speech. “Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”

Such a casual accusation is practically unheard of, but what exactly does that accusation mean?

Treason in the legal sense is actively trying to overthrow the government, or to even kill or injure the leader or their family. Treason is a serious — and very illegal — offense that was not always thrown around to the other political party.

However, Trump used this politically-charged term as a simple phrase to explain his anger at the opposing political party. While the lack of applause from Democrats does not fall under the dictionary definition of treason, Trump’s casual comments are nonetheless vast.

Andrew Trees, a DePaul professor who specializes in U.S. history, explains that the context of a treason accusation is important to consider. “The constitutional definition has not changed, but there is almost always a political element to charging someone with treason, which does change over time,” he said.

Treason has a storied history in America, starting with Benedict Arnold during the American Revolution. After Arnold defected to the British army, he became remembered largely as a traitor and today leaves behind a legacy of unpatriotic sentiment.

Almost 200 years later, at the height of the Cold War, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union; Both were eventually found guilty and executed. Thereafter, the treason conviction, and the implication of the word in society, was cemented. A serious criminal charge, treason often results in the death penalty, which further heightens the severity of Trump’s comment.

“A year into his presidency, Trump has still not learned that what presidents say is taken literally,” said DePaul professor Bruce Evensen, who teaches a class on the press and the presidency.

Through the past year, Trump has been criticized for his casual and frequently problematic comments, often coming from early morning tweets. Trump’s statements have been called harsh, misguided and sometimes completely false, yet the president continues to voice his opinions on Twitter despite the criticism.

When you get to be president and can blow up the world, your statements, even if they’re tweeted, are taken literally.”

— DePaul Professor Bruce Evensen

On a grander scheme, the accusation of treason has far-reaching consequences when it comes to the democratic foundation of our country. By accusing his political opponents of treason, Trump is putting their allegiance in question.

“Part of why democracies work is based on the recognition that political opposition is legitimate, that people can disagree even on fundamental matters without having their loyalty to their country called into question,” Trees said.

This was yet another example of a situation wherein many members of the press were unsure how to navigate coverage of the president’s remarks. The debate on whether or not to directly quote him regardless of the content of his comments.

Evensen explains that the intended role of the press in matters like these is to be able to educate the public so there is less confusion.

“It’s the responsibility of journalists to report what the president says, and to offer a context which gives it meaning,” he said.