For a guy who spends a lot of time denying and raising the legal standard for collusion, President Trump sure spends a lot of time lowering the bar for a related crime: treason.
White House leakers were the latest to be declared “traitors” Monday in the court of law that exists between Trump's ears. He tweeted not only that these aides would be found out but also that they have committed the highest crime against their country. Trump declared that “leakers are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!”
A few months ago, Trump also convicted Democrats whose crime against their country was not standing and applauding at his State of the Union address. “Un-American,” he said. “Somebody said treasonous. I mean, yeah, I guess. Why not? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.” The White House dismissed this as a joke.
Trump applied the label perhaps more seriously (and perhaps more justifiably) when talking about Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of leaking military information to WikiLeaks, and Bowe Bergdahl, who pleaded guilty to desertion for leaving his post in Afghanistan. In both cases, the claims of treason just happened to be convenient broadsides against President Barack Obama, who commuted Manning's sentence and authorized the prisoner swap that brought Bergdahl back. But Trump calling Bergdahl a “dirty, rotten traitor” was used by Bergdahl's defense team in its effort to seek leniency. He avoided prison time.
In January, Trump found FBI agent Peter Strzok guilty of treason for texting his mistress about the Hillary Clinton investigation in a way that conservatives have argued betrayed a coverup. (The evidence doesn't exactly support that conclusion.) “This is the FBI we’re talking about — that is treason,” Trump said. “That is a treasonous act. What he tweeted to his lover is a treasonous act.”
Trump even lowered the bar for treason when it comes to arguably the most famous spies in American history, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. “You know what treason is?” Trump said in July. “That’s Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for giving the atomic bomb, okay?” Except the Rosenbergs weren't convicted of treason, because the Soviet Union was technically an ally at the time. They were convicted of espionage.
Trump brought up the Rosenbergs in the context of a meandering apparent defense of his son Donald Trump Jr.'s decision to set up a meeting with a Kremlin-aligned Russian lawyer who was offering him dirt on Clinton. And the fact that he misstated the crime of treason even in that setting is telling. Trump is casually accusing his political opponents of treason while arguing that there must be an ironclad quid pro quo for his campaign to have been guilty of a related but more nebulous crime — collusion. Even if you think a president should be allowed to accuse people of treason in such a cavalier fashion, Trump the judge isn't exactly being evenhanded here.
Trump is a big fan of the “I know you are, but what am I” strategy, in which you relentlessly accuse your opponents of the same things you are accused of. In this case, with Trump being investigated for collusion and obstruction of justice, he is accusing people such as Strzok, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's team and Democrats of essentially being enemies of the state and obstructing legitimate investigations. If you can muddy the waters enough so that people throw up their arms and say, “Everyone does it,” the logic goes, people will just tune the whole thing out. Trump has used this strategy to great effect.
But if Mueller's reports come back containing even more compelling evidence of possible coordination with Russians than we know about today, the standard for what constitutes collusion-related crimes will be big. We've already had a former White House adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, label the Russian lawyer meeting “treasonous,” and Roger Stone is defending himself against indications that he, like Manning, worked with WikiLeaks. Stone has even preemptively said that working with WikiLeaks wouldn't constitute treason, and Trump saying Manning's work with WikiLeaks was treasonous wouldn't seem particularly helpful in that respect.
The fact that Trump keeps so casually and flippantly exclaiming “traitor” may not be legally decisive — especially given that sympathetic Republicans would need to turn on Trump to impeach him or remove him from office — but it's probably not the best public relations strategy when it comes to giving them cover and exonerating his own aides.