The president of the United States is a traitor.
He is a liar. He is a fraud. He is a racist. He is a misogynist. He is incompetent. He is corrupt. He is unfit in almost every respect for the high office he holds.
But what distinguishes him from every other bad leader the United States has had and, indeed, from every other senior official of the U.S. government in over twenty-four decades of history, is that he has repeatedly, indisputably, and egregiously betrayed his country.
How that is defined and litigated by prosecutors or perhaps by the next Congress of the United States is a work in progress. Cases revealing the instances of his placing foreign interests before those of the United States, always ultimately to serve his own greed or personal ambition, will likely be surfacing for years to come. But for historians and for students of facts that are already available to the public, there is no question Trump has met every necessary standard to define his behavior as traitorous. As his presidency has progressed, other scandals have manifested themselves, so many that they have blended together to sometimes obscure this core truth. But it has remained and day to day his actions have manifested his willingness to serve any country that might help him personally whether that country was the one he was elected to lead or not.
At its core, that definition depends on breaking faith with the people of the country he was chosen to lead. But the story of his betrayals began long before he took office and then continued and was compounded by his actions as president. While we may not yet have uncovered many of his crimes, the story we know so far is so outrageous and disturbing that it raises, and I believe answers, a question that has never before been presented in American history: Has America’s forty-fifth president been the greatest threat this country has faced during his tenure in office?
Since Trump took office, the scope and scale of his cooperation with the Russians and their consequences have come into clearer focus, and his campaign’s abuses were compounded by crimes committed to obstruct justice to protect not just Trump and his team but the Russians, too. In fact, throughout Trump’s first term of office, he has repeatedly undertaken actions that protect Russia and Russians, advanced their interests, and thwarted the efforts of the U.S. intelligence, law-enforcement, diplomatic, and military communities as they sought to stop or counteract Russian wrongdoing. He has also sought the involvement of other governments in helping to serve his personal objectives, from Ukraine to China, placing personal interests above national interests, another form of grave betrayal. And, as of this current election campaign, despite the multiple investigations into the president’s activities and the serial revelations of his misdeeds and a formal congressional impeachment investigation, Donald Trump shows no signs of reversing or even moderating these efforts. Indeed, as the Ukraine and China instances reveal, he entered into his campaign for reelection as he did his first campaign—soliciting aid from foreign powers to help him win power at home and offering to them the benefits of his holding that office.
Even after the Mueller investigation into his 2016 ties with the Russians and the Trump impeachment hearings which centered around his abuse of power in shaking down the Ukrainian government in order to advance his personal political interests, much remains to be revealed by the investigations into the president’s involvement in and support of attacks against the United States, investigations that might not even be fully possible until he is out of office and those who are actively protecting him, from his attorney general to the Senate majority leader, are out of power or substantially weakened. But as of now, it is already clear that Russia’s interference in our election and Russia’s support of Trump has advanced major Russian objectives, including but not limited to unprecedented efforts by the U.S. president to weaken NATO and attack NATO allies; support for Russian positions in Syria; undercutting the standing of the United States in the world; fostering deep divisions within the United States; enabling further Russian cyber interventions in the United States; covering up past such interventions; embracing Russian leaders and representatives; supporting Russian efforts in Europe to promote right-wing nationalists who seek to undermine the European Union (EU); undoing sanctions against key Russian leaders, including those associated with the Russian invasion of Ukraine; and slow-walking other such sanctions or benefits to Russian rivals. Further, these goals have not just been achieved, they have been advanced by the president working in conjunction with a political party, the GOP, which has largely embraced Trump’s pro-Russia stance as its own and which is complicit with the president and the Russians in advancing the goals mentioned.
It is hard to imagine that the Russians ever felt their efforts to support a fringe and unlikely candidate for the U.S. presidency would produce such immense successes for them. Even were Donald Trump removed from office tomorrow or should he be defeated in November 2020, the Russian achievements have been so great that their efforts to put him in office and use him to advance their goals has to be seen as perhaps the most successful international intelligence operation of modern times.
Much has been written about Trump and about this case. Important, compelling books have been published that detail why he should be impeached, that enumerate his crimes, that reveal his character flaws and his incompetence as well as those of the friends and political advisers around him. But there is a special need to understand Trump’s betrayal from national security and foreign policy perspectives. After all, Trump is the only president in American history to have been impeached on national security grounds.
Beyond that, the damage done has been so great and the threats remaining are so profound that it is our duty as citizens to understand how they came to be and what their potential long-term significance is. It also means stepping back from the fray of the campaign and the numbing outrages and controversies of the news cycle and gaining some perspective. Nothing can help us get that perspective like gaining historical context, understanding where Trump-Russia ranks among the acts of treachery committed by Americans against America since the country was born over 240 years ago. We also need to understand how the country has historically viewed such crimes and how it has treated them in the past to place what has happened in perspective.
Trump is despicable, the least of us. But beyond his defective or perhaps even nonexistent character, there are the near-term and lasting consequences of his actions. We must understand these to reverse them, and we must understand how easily Russia achieved its objectives in order to prevent further such catastrophes in the future.
While having a president who is a traitor is unprecedented, there have been many Americans in our history who have, for money or ambition, misjudgment or spite, turned their backs on our flag and people. These offenses started early in the history of our nation. In fact, the concept of loyalty to a cause or country meant more to the founders because the tumultuous formative years of American history were so riven by plots and intrigues. When young George Washington made his first military forays during the French and Indian War, it was often unclear whose side indigenous tribes were on, and one of Washington’s initial defeats was marked by his signing an agreement with the French granting him and his troops free passage on terms so odious that its translator was for a period accused of treason, of betraying the British Crown, for whom Washington was fighting. Of course, the revolution itself also saw treachery and betrayal—and even some of those who appeared for a time to be fighting for American independence were themselves accused of being traitors to the king. The story of Benedict Arnold, once a trusted general and friend of Washington’s, is now taught to every schoolchild in the country and, indeed, is likely the very first incident most Americans think of when they hear the word “traitor.”
Arnold, of course, gave sensitive military information to the British and later fought alongside them, which is as clear a case of betraying the fledgling country as there could be. But when you ask how different it is from working with an adversary government when it is seeking to attack via a modern means—information warfare—the core institutions of American democracy, or later embracing policies on behalf of foreign sponsors that weaken and even seek the destruction of vital American alliances and to enhance the strategic position of enemies, even this first most egregious betrayal of Arnold’s does not seem so distant or different from what we have witnessed in our own time. Similarly, betraying foreign allies from Ukraine to Kurdistan, putting our vital interests at grave risk or, alternatively, looking the other way when a foreign potentate might murder an American journalist, all to advance his personal political or financial needs, carry with them echoes of past abuses, including many which were not so egregious as Trump’s.
The early years of the United States were marked by constant accusations of disloyalty between Federalists, who were accused of being too close to Britain; Jeffersonians, who were viewed as being too close to France; and all manner of plots and scandals associated with these divisions. Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s vice president, better known today as the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, was even part of a plot to form his own nation in among the territories of the Spanish in Louisiana and Mexico. He was arrested for treason in February of 1807 but was not convicted because of the constitutional requirement that treason require an “overt act,” the kind of technicality often used in Trump’s defense today. Burr, however, was viewed as a traitor the rest of his life, and he was forced to spend a number of years in Europe in exile before returning to New York to practice law, a profession apparently then as now open to people of dubious repute.
In the centuries since, the United States has witnessed outright sedition and the treason that brought about the Civil War, but even then, while a number of leaders of the Confederacy— from Jefferson Davis to Robert E. Lee— had held senior positions in the U.S. federal government, none, of course, operated at the level of Trump as president. In the past century, traitors have more often been prosecuted under espionage laws because the legal bar set to prove treason has been set so high, but there is no doubt that spies from the Rosenbergs to Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen were ultimately seen as traitors regardless of the terms of their convictions.
Gaining historical perspective also means considering the moment in history in which the Trump betrayals have taken place, the key actors in undertaking those betrayals, the specific charges that have been made against Trump and those close to him, and the consequences of the betrayal. In addition, we need to further understand the nature of modern warfare and why old definitions— while operative in legal definitions of what makes an “enemy”— may be misleading and provide cover for our adversaries at home and abroad.
It is also vital to understand the politics of our time not just because they created the opening for Trump but because they created a wall of defense behind which he and his coconspirators could act, thanks to the active complicity of the GOP leadership, the Republican-led Senate (and, for the first two years of Trump’s presidency, of the House of Representatives), and the penetration of Russian actors and money into the financing apparatus of the GOP and related organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA). These things in turn created the sense of opportunity Trump saw in every foreign interaction, viewing them each in a personal, transactional light, as deals that he might strike for his benefit or to the detriment of his enemies.
It is my conviction, now that I have done the work described above in preparation of my book, Traitor that, upon reviewing the facts, the only objective conclusion that can be drawn is that wittingly or otherwise, Donald Trump; those closest to him in his White House, his campaign, and his family; and the leaders of the Republican Party in the United States have committed the highest-level, greatest, most damaging betrayal in the history of the country. They are traitors. And as of this writing they continue to damage the United States as no other actors in the world can. Indeed, the checks and balances against such behavior that were created by the Founders have essentially all failed. Indeed, those failures, which have subsequently sent the strong message that if a president controls the executive branch and the Senate and he has placed loyalists in key positions to defend him, then he in fact, our core principles be damned, is in fact above and beyond the reach of the law.
Some have called it the greatest scandal in American history. But that hardly does it justice. Unaddressed and unacknowledged, it could be the plot that brought down the greatest force for freedom and justice the world has ever known, the post–World War II Western alliance led by the United States of America. It could also, through the abuses of the presidents and his supporters and the techniques by which they both grabbed for power and sought to defend themselves, lead to the undoing of American democracy. Two and a half centuries after Benedict Arnold sought to ensure that America remained in a tyrant’s grasp, Donald Trump and his foreign sponsors may well have advanced that objective as Arnold could not.
Only one check remains to protect us from this fate. That is the election that will take place on November 3, an election that once again will occur with a presidential candidate, this time the incumbent, seeking the aid of foreign enemies to win. To fulfill our responsibilities as citizens, we must enter into such an election with a clear understanding of unprecedented threat posed by a president who is a traitor, and that is why I wrote Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump.
Excerpted and adapted from Traitor: A History of American Betrayal From Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump by David Rothkopf and published by Thomas Dunne Books. Copyright 2020, reprinted with permission.