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Treason? Probably not, but senators, experts concerned by anti-Trump op-ed

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., speaks to Sinclair Broadcast Group on Capitol Hill on Sep. 6, 2018. (SBG)

As President Donald Trump raged against the anonymous senior administration official who wrote an op-ed column claiming to be part of a “resistance” of appointees fighting the his “misguided impulses,” allies and critics slammed the author’s attempt to spin their insubordination as honorable but lawmakers stopped short of repeating Trump’s tweeted suggestion that it amounts to “TREASON.”

“I think it’s disloyal, I think it’s cowardly, but not technically treason,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Treason has a very specific legal definition and it carries very serious penalties, up to and including death. Nothing about the New York Times op-ed published Wednesday appears to fit the conditions laid out in the Constitution to support a treason charge.

In the op-ed, the unnamed official claimed to be “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations.” The official insisted the administration’s policy successes have come in spite of Trump’s “impetuous, adversarial, petty, and ineffective” leadership and asserted that the “adults in the room” are trying to do the right thing even when Trump does not.

Under Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution, treason can only consist of “levying war” against the United States or giving “aid and comfort” to its enemies. There is no indication the author intended to aid a specific foreign enemy by writing the op-ed or by thwarting what they consider Trump’s “anti-trade and anti-democratic” impulses.

Top Cabinet officials, the vice president, and the first lady all distanced themselves from the op-ed following its publication. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo chastised the media for focusing on the controversy, calling the anonymous official’s choice to write the column “sad.”

“I come from a place where if you are not in a position to execute the commanders you have a singular option, it is to leave, and this person instead, according to the New York Times chose not only to stay but to undermine what President Trump and this administration are trying to do," Pompeo said.

Although White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders slammed the media for a supposed “wild obsession with the identity of the anonymous coward,” Trump himself demanded on Twitter that the Times “give up” the writer to the government “for national security purposes.”

The cries of treason may be misplaced, but depending on who the officials in this self-proclaimed “steady state” trying to contain the president’s decisions are and what they are refusing to do, there could be national security implications.

“The picture it’s painted of him, it seems like we have Dennis the Menace in the Oval Office,” said Tom Whalen, author of “A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage” and an associate professor of social sciences at Boston University.

If this official’s depiction of the Trump administration is accurate, the country and the world cannot be confident that Trump is behind the wheel in a crisis or that those beneath him will execute his orders.

“We’re having people make decisions for us who are not elected. We don’t even know who they are,” said Daniel Franklin, author of “Pitiful Giants: Presidents in their Final Term” and associate professor of American politics at Georgia State University.

Bob Mann, a former Senate press secretary who now teaches at Louisiana State University, recognized the news value of publishing the op-ed, but he questioned what exactly the writer was trying to accomplish by going semi-public with their resistance.

“If you knew the president was secretly plotting an illegal war or something crazy going on that was going to happen, sort of a Daniel Ellsberg kind of thing,” Mann said, referring to the 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers, “then it’s more a whistleblower kind of scenario, which I think is very much in the American political tradition, but this seems like a different sort of animal.”

While none shared Trump’s belief that it rises to the level of treason, senators from both parties expressed concern Thursday that this official would betray the president they ostensibly serve and their oath of office with this anonymous statement and the conduct it describes.

“I think the president deserves the loyalty of his team, but if you have somebody that’s not loyal to the president, that doesn’t necessarily mean treason,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., adding, “If they’re not going to be loyal to him, they should resign.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he had not yet read the column, but he seemed troubled by what he has heard about it.

“I think certainly the president needs to be accountable, but he doesn’t need to be torpedoed from inside,” he said.

Others on Capitol Hill were unfazed by the revelation that administration officials are actively working to subvert the president’s agenda because they have heard the same thing many times before.

“I didn’t think there was any new information that was laid out at all, so y’all, each of you who covers what happens here has known all that was in that letter for the whole time the administration has been in place,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who has previously compared the Trump White House to a day care center.

According to Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., Trump’s behavior backs up the official’s account.

“What we’ve heard from this op-ed is I think the feeling of a lot of people inside the administration, and frankly from a lot of Republican senators, at least privately,” Warner said. “This is a president that doesn’t seem tethered to truth at all and seems reckless at best and sometimes dangerous.”

The op-ed echoed claims made by several current and former officials in journalist Bob Woodward’s upcoming book, “Fear,” details of which were first reported earlier this week. Sources told Woodward Trump’s top aides, including former chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, have gone as far as swiping documents from his desk to prevent him from signing them.

“If any of the anecdotes I’ve seen already are true, it paints a pretty bleak picture of the condition of the presidency and I think that’s concerning,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., Wednesday.

Kildee cited Woodward’s long, prestigious record as a reporter, but Republicans pointed to denials of his claims by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and others.

“If he’s quoting the source and the source is contradicting him, you’ve got to believe the source,” said Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla. “If they’re saying it’s fabricated, the book is probably fabricated.”

The author of the op-ed suggested Americans should be comforted by the thought of unelected bureaucrats quietly disrupting the agenda of the executive branch, but many observers had the opposite reaction.

“He’s describing a bureaucratic coup,” Whalen said. “And what’s more frightening is we don’t know who these people are We have elections for a reason: accountability. These people don’t seem to have any accountability.”

The latest news is consistent with many details leaked by officials throughout Trump’s time in office, portraying him as irrational, uninformed, and unable to responsibly fulfill his duties. However, Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., brushed off doubts about Trump’s competency Thursday, pointing to the strength of the economy.

“I work as closely with this president as anybody else and what I see is a president who’s hitting his stride right now,” Perdue said.

Historians have struggled to find a precedent for officials routinely usurping the power of a commander-in-chief who is not clearly debilitated. Edith Wilson took over many of President Woodrow Wilson’s duties after he suffered a stroke in 1919, but there is no indication of a medical crisis or change in President Trump’s mental state since he took office.

Franklin pointed to Presidents Harry Truman and Richard Nixon, who had staffers sometimes intercept orders and circle back to ensure that they wanted them followed as much smaller-scale examples. He also noted that the growing power of the executive branch has weakened the other forces that should act as checks on the president, sometimes leaving bureaucrats as the only ones who can.

“This is something we should have seen coming,” he said. “The modern presidency is so powerful that we’re now running into the problem [James] Madison pointed out that we have a government of men and not law.”

According to Mann, current or former staffers trash talking the president to the press behind his back is nothing new, but what has been said by Trump administration officials goes well beyond that.

“Every Senate office, every congressional office has people who ridicule the boss occasionally,” he said. “I worked for three senators. I gotta say, if I thought they were as dangerous and reckless as this person seems to think, I don’t know how you stay working for somebody like that. This is not your garden variety disgruntlement.”

Whatever compelled the writer to pen the op-ed, experts agree nothing good is likely to come from it.

“If Trump really has the authoritarian personality, he’ll do what other authoritarians would do and start firing people and replacing them with loyalists,” Franklin said.

With the president already signaling a desire to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions and shut down special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Whalen worries the latest news will spur Trump to act on his threats against the Justice Department before the midterm elections.

“I think the danger is Trump is going to double down and go all ‘Saturday Night Massacre part 2,’” he said, recalling Nixon’s firing of the special counsel investigating the Watergate scandal and the resignation of two top DOJ officials in 1973. “That will plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.”

For a man who has spent much of his presidency stringing together conspiracy theories about a deep state of unelected officials working against him, an anonymous declaration from an unelected official working against him may not have the most positive effect on Trump.

“It’s got to impact the basic functioning of the White House and the ability of the president to do his job,” Mann said. “If you think the president was erratic and verging on mental illness, this doesn’t seem like a way to bring him back from the brink of that.”

Or this could all blow over, like most other controversies that have momentarily engulfed the Trump administration and briefly transfixed the media in the last 20 months.

“One thing I’ve learned from this administration is don’t assign any permanent effect to anything that happens because whatever we’re outraged by on Wednesday or Thursday will be replaced by something equal or worse by Friday or Monday,” Mann said. “I don’t think anything in this administration has a half-life of more than a few days.”

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