As a casual German observer following the news, I wonder about the language used in the news.

I gather that the current situation is that a whistle-blower from an important intelligence position has reported an incident that is deemed urgent and important. This report seems to be held secret by high government offices against well defined laws requiring to forward it.

The reported incident is not public currently, but what is known is that it is about Donald Trump promising a favor to a foreign government. It seems to be that of Ukraine. Together with what is known about earlier events, it seems to be a plausible idea one could assume that Trump has made some kind of secret deal with Ukraine for personal gains.

I'm surprised that the term treason is not commonly used to describe or speculate about the situation. It is certainly a big deal to use the term, and I do not see how that can be not treason.

Do I misunderstand the situation, so that treason just does not apply?

  • I'm sorry, but we can not answer this question at this point. What is or is not treason is for the relevant authorities to decide (courts or in this case congress) and there are not enough facts known to the public to make a good call here.
    – Philipp
    Sep 21, 2019 at 9:50
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    We can not decide, but this is about merely using the term in discussions and speculations in news. The discussion could even be exactly what you just wrote. It could be the answer in TV news in reaction to an absurd accusation of Trump. Sep 21, 2019 at 10:08
  • This probably has something to do with your (non-native) English, but the title of your question does come across as tendentious, even though reading the body of your post mostly dispels that impression. I.e. this appears largely a good-faith general question, even if motivated by the recent news. Sep 22, 2019 at 8:08
  • Also, making a secret deal with a foreign country could violate FARA (which doesn't make it treason though.) Sep 22, 2019 at 8:13
  • @Fizz - I see, it's not the language difference. Until I learned from the answers, I tended to think it should be called treason. This, in current context, implies a bias against Trump. I decided not to use his name in the title, but took great care to use treason as a prominent first word. I noticed the issue in Democrat leaning news, though. Sep 22, 2019 at 8:22

2 Answers 2


In the U.S. Constitution, Article 3 Section 3 reads:

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.

and in federal law treason is defined as:

The offense of attempting to overthrow the government of one's country or of assisting its enemies in war; specifically: the act of levying war against the United States or adhering to or giving aid and comfort to its enemies by one who owes it allegiance.

This statement explicitly limits the allowable definition of treason to be very very narrow, due to overuse of "treason" by the English. Importantly, you have to either go to war against the U.S. or aid enemies, not "merely" aid another state or act against the interests of the U.S.

Therefore, there is a distinction between acts that would be reasonably described as treasonous based on a dictionary definition (for example "the betrayal of a trust") and those that are legally treason according to the U.S. Constitution. Merriam-Webster has a whole article on the use of the term in the U.S. context.

Only one person has been tried, convicted, and executed for treason in the U.S. since the Constitution was ratified.

  • 1
    Was Mumford really executed for treason as it is defined in the Constitution? The wiki article gives charges against him as "high crimes and misdemeanors against the laws of the United States, and the peace and dignity thereof and the Law Martial", which sounds a bit different, formally at least. Butler (the commander who executed him) did say it was for treason, but that was in a military order to the troops performing the execution. Sep 21, 2019 at 13:34
  • @Fizz Seems inconsistent in how people write about it. Included it here to point out how just incredibly rare it is, making it kind of a meaningless bar for Trump. You can do a lot of really really bad things to the country and still not commit "treason". Sep 21, 2019 at 13:52
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    Well, I asked on law.stackexchange.com/questions/44899/… Sep 21, 2019 at 13:53
  • @Fizz Yeah I'm curious what the result is. I originally wrote it as "no one" and then found that example. I really just wanted to show it's rare and wasn't sure which way would be less likely to start a fight ;) Sep 21, 2019 at 13:56
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    @Fizz - I don't know how much Law deals with legal history. If you don't get an answer there, it might be better on History.
    – Bobson
    Sep 23, 2019 at 21:30

Treason is not the right word for this situation, unless the alleged deal involves either an effort to enlist help in a war against the US or to provide aid to enemies of the US.

Treason is one of the few crimes defined in the US Constitution, and it is covered in Article 3, Section 3:

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.

The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.

Ukraine is pretty far from being an enemy of the US so it's unlikely any potential deal involved an effort to get support in a war against the US, though it's possible (no matter how unlikely) that the deal involved providing "aid and comfort" to enemies of the US. The contents of a deal would need to be known in order to determine if it's treason, however making a secret deal is not treason on its own.

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    Not only that, I think (but IANAL) it could reasonably be argued that the "Enemies" would be only those who are actively at war with the US. Possibly only recogniz3ed countries would count. I don't know if an American actively supporting or fighting for say ISIS would count as treason.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 21, 2019 at 4:18
  • @jamesqf the definition of treason under US law has come up at Law, and a lawyer there has said, IIRC, that it definitely is limited to wartime enemies, but a court could plausibly find that non-state combatants such as terrorist groups qualify as enemies for that purpose in a context that resembles a war (remember, the US hasn't been in a declared war since 1945). It's hard to see that any of the current president's actions could be taken as aid or comfort to any such enemy, however.
    – phoog
    Sep 27, 2019 at 13:24

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