White House

No, Trump Is Not Facing the Death Penalty over Ukraine

2020 Republican U.S. presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld arrives to speak at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., August 11, 2019. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)
Bill Weld beclowns himself in trying to spread this misinformation.

Bill Weld used to be a serious guy. A scholar graduated from Harvard and Oxford, a man with gravitas in the legal community. Before he began seeking elective office in the late 1980s, Weld was a high-ranking and extremely knowledgeable federal prosecutor. For a time, he was the chief of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division under President Reagan. I have not been a fan of his post-DOJ political career, but I’ve never thought of him as a clown.

Now, he has beclowned himself.

It was a “Hold my beer” moment of one-upmanship on Morning Joe Monday, MSNBC, where the Trump-deranged legions make their 24/7 calls for Trump’s impeachment, is one of few venues where Weld can find an audience for his forlorn GOP-nomination challenge to the president.

Weld was talking about the president’s conversations with his Ukrainian counterpart. Trump has admitted that he urged President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden for corruption. Former vice president Biden, of course, is a favorite to emerge as the Democrats’ 2020 nominee opposing Trump.

For most of us, the potential removal of a president of the United States over misconduct allegations may seem extraordinarily grave, having never happened and rarely been tried lo these 230 years of constitutional governance. For former Governor Weld, though, grounds for Trump’s impeachment are so matter-of-factly to be assumed that he’s moved beyond them. Way beyond them.

Trump, he asserts (and I’m not kidding, though I wish I were), may need to be put to death.

The details of the Trump–Zelensky communications are still emerging. Yet Weld decided he knows enough to pronounce that Trump’s purported “pressuring a foreign country to interfere with and control a U.S. election” is not a matter of merely “undermining democratic institutions.” No, no, “It’s treason pure and simple.” Not content with ludicrous overstatement, Weld took pains to add: “And the penalty for treason under the U.S. Code is death. That’s the only penalty.”

This is so inane coming from someone of Weld’s stature as to be mind-boggling.

As we note in our NR editorial on the subject, the full parameters of the Trump–Zelensky discussions are still not clear. But even if we assume the worst (notwithstanding that both the president and Ukrainian officials deny that there was extortion or a corrupt deal), Trump urged a foreign power to conduct an investigation of a political rival under circumstances where Zelensky could have surmised that delivery of some $391 million in military aid Trump’s administration was delaying hinged on his compliance.

If that happened, it would be an abusive elevation of the president’s political interests over American national interests. It would be a crude instance of something all presidents do to some degree, usually with more craftiness and decorum, namely: wield power under the influence of perceived political needs — especially if reelection hangs in the balance.

But one thing it would not be is treason. Not even close.

Treason, as Weld used to know, is the only criminal offense defined in the Constitution. As Article III, Section 3 decrees, it “shall consist only in levying War against [the United States], or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

Obviously, nothing Trump has done, even assuming the worst quid pro quo spin that could be put on it, remotely involved waging war against us or adhering to America’s enemies. Russia is a vexing geopolitical rival, but we are not at war with it, and it is not an “enemy” in that sense. Slow-walking a fairly modest amount of defense aid to Ukraine — under circumstances where, unlike the Obama administration, the Trump administration has actually helped Kyiv defend itself against Moscow — would be poor judgment. It would not be a lending aid and comfort to Russia.

Treason is such a highly unusual crime that it has been 70 years since anyone has been convicted of it in the United States. A Nazi propagandist named Herbert John Brugman was convicted of treason in 1949; a collaborator with Japan, Tomoya Kawakita, was tried in 1948, and his treason conviction was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1952.

Weld was born in 1945 and was perhaps too young to remember that neither man was executed. But he is sufficiently experienced and well-versed to know that death is not the only penalty for treason. The Constitution expressly leaves it for Congress to prescribe a penalty. Lawmakers long ago did so. Section 2381 of the federal penal code states that a traitor convicted of treason “shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years,” in addition to a fine and a prohibition against holding federal office.

Death porn about Republican presidents used to be the preserve of unhinged lefty celebs who no longer perceive a line between entertainment and shock. To find Bill Weld going there is deeply disturbing. And for what?

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