Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who is running against President Trump in the Republican primaries, drew headlines on Monday by declaring that Trump’s call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asking for an investigation of Joe Biden and his son constitutes treason. Indeed, the normally circumspect Weld, said that Trump could be executed for his conversation. The claim is wildly off base. The call could theoretically be criminal if, as I have written recently, there were a quid pro quo or suffice as an impeachable offense. That will depend on the facts that unfold in the coming weeks. However, it achieves nothing to escalate the debate far beyond the reasonable interpretation of the criminal code.
Weld stated on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that “Talk about pressuring a foreign country to interfere with and control a U.S. election, it couldn’t be clearer. And that’s not just undermining democratic institutions, that is treason. It’s treason pure and simple. And the penalty for treason under the U.S. Code is death. That’s the only penalty.”
I have been defense counsel in treason-related cases that this is not a plausible charge on the existing evidence. 18 U.S.C. §2381 states:
Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.
There is no claim here that Trump was levying war or given aid and comfort to enemies.
This type of hyperbole is not helpful in a very serious moment for the country.