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What Crosses The Line Into Treason


Hillary Clinton's former running mate, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, used some specific legal words when describing that meeting.


TIM KAINE: Nothing is proven yet. But we're now beyond obstruction of justice in terms of what's being investigated. This is moving into perjury, false statements and even into, potentially, treason.

INSKEEP: Treason, is that the right word? UC Davis law professor Carlton Larson doubts it. Although, he is writing a book about treason. Good morning, sir.

CARLTON LARSON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Just on its face, when people look at this, we have a man who agreed in writing to a promise to get dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to influence a U.S. election. Why is that not treason?

LARSON: Well, certainly, you know, very bad behavior, but treason is defined in our Constitution exceptionally narrowly. And so it actually does not cover a lot of types of behavior that many people think it does.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is the phrase in the Constitution that says something about providing aid and comfort to the enemy. Is that right?

LARSON: Yeah, exactly. So the provision dealing with foreign interaction says that it's treason to aid the enemies of the United States, giving them aid and comfort. But that's limited to enemies. And enemies has a very specific definition under historic treason law, which is with a nation, that is a nation that is at war with the United States, either an open war or a actual war. And that is not the situation we are in with Russia. There's a lot of, you know, bad things back and forth between the U.S. and Russia. But we are not formally or even actually at war.

INSKEEP: Now, Tim Kaine used some other words there that can have legal meanings. He talked about perjury and false statements. There are other Democrats who are talking of conspiracy. Just looking at the facts that we know so far, could any of those words potentially apply?

LARSON: I think so. It would depend what Donald Trump Jr. has said in other circumstances. And it would - I think, also affects a lot of what we now know, the denials from the other members of the Trump administration who have consistently denied anything to do with Russia. We now know that that is false, that Russia had, in fact, interacted with people at the very top of the Trump presidential campaign. So I think perjury is probably one of the things Bob Mueller will be looking at.

INSKEEP: Oh, if you looked at Jared Kushner, for example, who had to file security clearance forms and so forth, there may be occasions where people have signed things and sworn to them?

LARSON: Yes, exactly. And it seems hard that one would not remember that you had gone into a meeting given the email chain that was there. Indeed, the email, when I saw it, it was so extraordinary, I thought this was probably fake because nobody would be so foolish as to respond to that email and go to the meeting. But apparently, they did.

INSKEEP: Well, there is another question there, though because you're a lawyer. You're looking at the law here. Somebody like you could end up some day defending Donald Trump Jr. against investigators. What is the best legal case that you could make that this is, as Trump's supporters have said, a nothing burger, that nothing really happened here.

LARSON: Well, I think if the charge is that, you know, they were accepting something of value on behalf of a foreign government for the campaign, I think that Trump Jr. could try to claim that in that meeting, nothing of any value was provided or accepted. That is, he may have gone into the meeting attempting to do that or intending to do that, but it, in fact, fizzled out. And it didn't happen.

INSKEEP: So you could defend him against that charge at least. Could you just argue that it's just a discussion, that nothing really happened here?

LARSON: Well, I think that's - yeah, I think that's what Trump's lawyers would try to argue. They may try to argue that even if there was some provision of opposition research, that that might not constitute a thing of value under federal law. I think that's a little harder argument for them to make. But I assume they would try to make it.

INSKEEP: Is ignorance a defense? He wasn't a professional political campaigner before this.

LARSON: Well, I think it's a defense in sort of the world of public opinion. The defense seems to be, you know, I just don't know anything about what I'm doing. But it's not a defense to the actual criminal law if he knew what he was - you know, the import of the meeting was, given what the email said.

INSKEEP: UC Davis law professor Carlton Larson, thanks so much, really appreciate it.

LARSON: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.