James Madison warned us that somebody as reckless as Donald Trump might come along.

Twice in recent days, Trump has called for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) to be hauled in for treason, which is punishable by death. Schiff’s crime? At a hearing last week, the Intelligence Committee chairman read a parody of Trump’s now-infamous telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The humor, unsurprisingly, was lost on someone with an exaggerated sense of victimhood and an ego made of eggshells. Trump rage-tweeted Sunday that Schiff’s “lies were made in perhaps the most blatant and sinister manner ever seen in the great Chamber. He wrote down and read terrible things, then said it was from the mouth of the President of the United States. I want Schiff questioned at the highest level for Fraud & Treason..... .” On Monday morning, Trump upped that outrageous demand by suggesting that Schiff actually be arrested for treason.

President Trump reacted to a House Intelligence Committee hearing after arriving at Joint Base Andrews, Md. on Sept. 26. (The Washington Post)

It has become so easy to dismiss such comments as hyperbole and bluster — just Trump being Trump — that we risk losing sight of how dangerous, how fundamentally un-American they are.

The framers of the Constitution took great care in spelling out what acts could be regarded as treason, which was the only crime they explicitly defined. Article III, Section 3 states that “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

Why did the framers believe treason, alone among offenses, merited such clarity in the nation’s founding document? Their recent history had given them reason to fear authoritarians who would loosely throw around accusations of treason. The parameters of the crime under British law were broad and vague, and could be stretched to include counterfeiting or sleeping with a member of the royal family, says Jason Opal, a professor of American history at McGill University. The royal governors of the 13 colonies invoked treason as a handy means of crushing dissent and executing those who objected to the crown’s rule.

When the framers set out to devise a legal system for the new nation, they borrowed much from British law and traditions. But they felt strongly that “treason” should have a precise, fixed and uniquely American meaning. Madison wrote in Federalist No. 43: “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.”

The president, as he is showing us, is the “alternate malignity” that Madison feared. Trump took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. He should start by learning what is in it.

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