October 16, 2019
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Congressional criticism is not treasonous, even when it’s irresponsible

J. Scott Applewhite | AP
J. Scott Applewhite | AP
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., listens at a news conference with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as House Democrats move ahead in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019.

President Donald Trump has long been throwing the word “treason” around. Last week, it was against a congressional critic and in regard to the recent whistleblower complaint against the president. So as a reference, we thought we’d point to a definition of treason — not from the dictionary, but from Article III of the U.S. 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.”

To borrow from remarks made in 1999 by then-Rep. Lindsey Graham during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, there is plenty of room for reasonable people to disagree on how to proceed with the impeachment inquiry currently underway in the House of Representatives. But there should be no room for blatant and dangerous misuse of a weighty charge such as treason, especially from the country’s commander in chief. And make no mistake, that is what Trump is doing as part of his criticism of Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California.

“Rep. Adam Schiff illegally made up a fake & terrible statement, pretended it to be mine as the most important part of my call to the Ukrainian President, and read it aloud to Congress and the American people,” Trump tweeted last week. “It bore no relationship to what I said on the call. Arrest for Treason?”

Schiff was undoubtedly guilty of embellishment and poor decision making during a Sept. 26 hearing when his summary of Trump’s call with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not stick to the readout of the call released by the White House.

“My summary of the president’s call was meant to be at least, part, in parody,” Schiff said later in the hearing. “The fact that that’s not clear is a separate problem in and of itself. Of course, the president never said, ‘If you don’t understand me I’m going to say it seven more times,’ my point is, that’s the message that the Ukraine president was receiving in not so many words.”

He did fleetingly acknowledge at the outset that his summary was “the essence of what the President communicates” on the call, and “in not so many words.” But that doesn’t excuse such a remarkably dumb decision, by the House Intelligence chairman no less, to stray from the facts and into exageration during a hearing of such consequence.

This is no moment for parody. Schiff missed the mark when he diverged from the actual text of the call readout and waded into hyperbole. But in no uncertain terms does that irresponsible approach constitute treason.That is not a defense of Schiff, it’s a defense of the Constitution.

“Treason is the most serious crime under our laws. It is so grave that the Founding Fathers specifically delineated it and its elements in the text of the Constitution,” 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree said in a statement to the BDN. “So it is beyond the pale that any American elected leader would brandish it so carelessly as Mr. Trump, and especially at one of my colleagues who is performing his duty of oversight under Article I.”

Pingree was also critical Trump’s use of the word “spy” to describe whistleblowers, calling the president’s approach “indefensible and offensive to our rule of law.”

While discussing the whistleblower complaint on CNN, Sen. Angus King similarly stressed that the president’s use of the word treason doesn’t match up with the definition in Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution.

“And to throw it around in this situation — the problem is the president feels that he is the state, you know, like Louis XIV, ‘I am the State.’ So criticism of him is treason against the United States,” King said. “That’s not true. That’s just not the way it works.”

Sen. Susan Collins pushed back against Trump’s comments about whistleblowers being spies, telling reporters in Washington, “Whistleblowers have been essential in bringing to the public’s attention wrongdoings, fraud, waste, abuse, law breaking, and I very much disagree with the president’s mischaracterization.”

In a separate statement to the BDN, Collins also disagreed with Trump invoking treason in his comments about Schiff.

“The President should never have used the word ‘treason’ in this case,” Collins said. “He should have responded to Congressman Schiff’s irresponsible and misleading ‘parody’ without using that word.”

Second District Rep. Jared Golden leaned on his military experience in a statement to the BDN.

“In the Marines, I fought in countries where people are executed for speaking their minds and voicing opposition or criticism toward leaders,” Golden said. “Thankfully we are better than that in America, where we are all born with a constitutional right to speak freely, particularly to those in power. These are sacred principles that go back to our founding and are essential to who we are as a country.”

Blatant disregard for, or ignorance of, the constitutional definition of a serious word like treason is incredibly troubling. That is particularly true when it is coming from our country’s chief executive. Call us quaint, but up here in Bangor, words and their definitions still matter. They should in the halls of Congress and the Oval Office, as well.

 



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