SMR Trump Vs. Obama
Is it to President Trump's advantage to attack Obama?
03:13 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a senior political analyst at CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

“Treason.” That’s what President Donald Trump accused Barack Obama of committing in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network Monday night.

With Trump’s daily diatribes it’s easy to shrug this off as just the latest insult. But no American president has ever publicly accused a predecessor of treason. It is a serious specific charge that often carries with it the penalty of death. And while Trump and his team use the word promiscuously, they also seem to fundamentally misunderstand its meaning.

John Avlon

Team Trump seems to think “treason” is about personal disloyalty. That’s fitting for a president who sees everything through the lens of self-interest. But the charge of treason is actually about betrayal of the national interest in pursuit of self-interest. And that’s a definition that may hit closer to home in the Trump administration.

The dictionary definition of “treason” is “the offense of acting to overthrow one’s government or to harm or kill its sovereign.” The US Constitution defines it even more narrowly: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

Beyond unhinged partisan attacks, the target of the Trump team’s cries of treason are members of their own administration who have run afoul of the President’s wishes or – even worse – decided to tell the truth about what they saw in the room where it happened. So Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed former National Security Advisor John Bolton as a “traitor” for the massively unflattering revelations in his book, backed up by contemporaneous notes, perhaps trying to distract from the account that Pompeo passed a note to Bolton describing the President as “so full of shit.” Trump called former Attorney General Jeff Sessions a “traitor” after he appropriately recused himself from the Russia investigation and Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel.

While ignorance is often used as a defense for President Trump, he’s shown a clear understanding of the traditional punishment for traitors, getting caught railing against the whistleblower whose complaint unleashed his impeachment, saying “I want to know who’s the person who gave the whistle-blower the information because that’s close to a spy … You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason, right? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”

That’s a clear reference to execution. If that sounds like an overstatement listen to what the former chief speechwriter for Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Guy Snodgrass, told Brian Stelter on Reliable Sources. He heard Trump go on a 10 minute tirade against a Washington Post reporter that Trump said “should be thrown in jail” and ultimately said ‘You know, in the good old days, if you had a traitor, you know what you would do? You would just line them up in the street and have them shot.’” “That kind of language,” Snodgrass concluded with severe understatement, “is not something you want to hear your commander in chief saying about freedom of the press, about members of the press who are seeking to inform the American public.”

Defending Trump in light of this persistent pattern of calling his opponents traitors is complicity. Only in a cult of personality does someone ignore the obvious to defend the indefensible. Of course, for people in this administration, proving their unquestioning loyalty is the best and only job protection barring being a member of the Trump family itself.

But there’s an obvious irony in Trump’s attempts to label critics traitors. His core political playbook is to deny, deflect, project and divide. And so when he reflexively reaches for an attack on others it reveals his own anxieties. Because President Trump can be credibly accused of giving our enemies “aid and comfort.”

Trump strenuously avoids criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite his long list of insults to American democracy and attempts to undercut the international system America helped build. Trump of course expected to benefit from Russian interference in our elections on his behalf. He subsequently invited foreign interference in the 2020 election by withholding military aid for Ukraine until they announced an investigation into Joe Biden’s family. And according to Bolton’s book, Trump begged Chinese President Xi to help him win re-election while personally approving of the construction of concentration camps. (Trump has denied Bolton’s account and called him a liar – though this response should be viewed with skepticism because of Trump’s record of lying, especially when confronted with uncomfortable facts.)

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    Bolton attests that Trump agreed to interfere in investigations into a Turkish bank and undercut attempts to impose crippling sanctions on Chinese telecom company ZTE, which had violated sanctions against Iran. And, of course, he chose to shrug off the Saudi-backed assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

    None of these actions are in America’s interest – but they can only be explained that Trump believes they benefit his self-interest, political or otherwise.

    So let’s get clear about the definition of treason and traitor. It has nothing to do with personal loyalty to President Trump. It has everything to do with loyalty to the transcendent interests of the United States of America. Ignoring that basic difference for job security or partisan purposes is defining deviancy down while degrading our democracy.