An explosive report from CNN on Tuesday said intelligence officials included an unverified memo in an intelligence briefing claiming, in part, that Donald Trump surrogates met with Russian government officials to exchange information during the U.S. election. Now, Trump critics are raising the specter of treason — even before the president-elect takes the oath of office.
To be sure, the information is unproven. The memo also provides no evidence that Trump himself knew of any alleged meetings between his surrogates and the Russian government.
Still, his critics are shouting that such meetings would rise to the level of treason — defined in Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution as the levying of war against the United States or in giving "aid and comfort" to U.S. enemies.
"As much fun as it is thinking of Trump and a pee fest, the more important story is DT/Putin collusion," tweeted Rob Reiner, an actor and outspoken Trump critic, referring to the report's other unverified claim that Trump directed Russian sex workers to urinate on a bed President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama had previously slept in at a Moscow hotel. "One is just ugly, the other treason."
Comedian Samantha Bee also devoted a segment of her Wednesday show to the report, saying that while the urination claims were indeed salacious, the alleged information exchange between Trump surrogates and Russia was the most concerning.
"We can only hope the incontinent sex-worker frosting draws attention to the report's less delicious details about Russia manipulating our president," Bee said. "After all, as the old Disney song goes, a spoonful of hooker urine helps the treason claims go down."
Treason, however, is a serious and exceedingly rare charge in the United States. Fewer than 30 treason cases have been tried in all of U.S. history, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
What's more, experts said that even if Trump did know about alleged collusion between his campaign and Russia, it wouldn't rise to the level of treason because Russia, technically, is not an enemy nation.
"Russia is not an enemy formally because we're not at war with Russia," Carlton F.W. Larson, a University of California-Davis law professor who studies treason, said in an interview. "Trump could turn over the nuclear codes to Russia and it wouldn't be treason."
Larson pointed to a case in the 1950s involving Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, U.S. citizens who were caught selling nuclear secrets to the Russians. While the Rosenbergs were tried for espionage, they were not charged with treason, because the United States was not technically at war with the Soviet Union at the time.
Trump, for his part, completely denies that Russia has compromising information on him or that any of his surrogates met with Russian government officials to exchange information during the presidential campaign.
In a tweet, Trump claimed Russia itself called the allegations "a complete and total fabrication" and "utter nonsense."
Experts said if Trump is found to have known his surrogates were passing information to the Russian government, that could be grounds for impeachment — which has only happened twice in U.S. history.
"It would be a betrayal not only of the American people, but of basic democratic values," Susan Hennessey, former legal counsel at the National Security Agency, told Forbes.
"If sufficient evidence emerges that the FBI has substantiated the allegations or is preparing criminal indictments," Hennessey added, "then even hardline Republicans in Congress will likely call for Governor Pence to take the oath of office."
Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution says the president, vice president and all civil officers of the United States "shall be removed from office on impeachment for and conviction of treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors."