Donald Trump is not a traitor (yet). A private citizen hoping for the Russian government to break U.S. law is not treason... though it’s an unconscionable desire from a citizen who wants to be President.
He also probably won’t be charged with a violation of the Logan Act, which applies to private citizens who meddle in foreign affairs. Even though the Logan Act seems on point given what Trump said, here’s the catch: Nobody has ever been found guilty of a Logan Act violation, and we’ve had the law since 1798.
“President” Trump might commit treason or other high crimes and misdemeanors, if elected. At this point, I’d say it is likely that President Trump would commit impeachable offenses, and set the over/under at 100 days in office.
But candidate Trump is just what (apocryphal) Lenin would call a “useful idiot.” Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare explain:
The phrase “useful idiots” (полезные дураки, in Russian) is often attributed to Lenin—though probably not accurately—and refers to people in the West who can be counted upon by virtue of naivete or stupidity to act on Russia’s behalf while not being active agents. This is probably the best way to understand the relationship between Trump and Putin.
That is the most succinct description of Trump’s relationship with Russia. He’s an idiot who can be counted upon to act on Russia’s behalf because he’s too stupid to know the difference.
The question now is whether being a useful idiot of the Putin regime disqualifies Trump from receiving national security briefings? Major party nominees are traditionally briefed a couple of times between the conventions and the election. The tradition started when Harry Truman shared intelligence with Eisenhower, because he didn’t want any future President to be as unprepared as he was when he ascended to office.
NBC has a really good primer on the issues here:
A couple of things to note: this is not the “daily” briefing that the President himself gets. We’re talking about one or two briefings over the next few months.
And it’s not like the candidates or their staff have code word clearance. So we’re not talking about the full divulging of state secrets. Nobody is telling Donald Trump where the aliens are, just yet.
The briefings are just there so the candidates can be “more informed” about international affairs. And, ironically given the Trump campaign, so the candidates don’t say anything manifestly stupid that might harm the country as they run for President.
There is no law requiring that the candidates get the briefings. It is a courtesy, extended by the current president, to his or her potential successors. Obama could just straight up decide not to extend Trump that courtesy. I mean, Obama has said that Trump is dangerous. He’d have tons of intellectual cover to deny Trump this discretionary privilege.
But... where does that get us, really? Again, the briefings need not be particularly deep. Republicans will howl about “partisanship” even though Trump is more of a malignant tumor on the Republican party than “Republican.” McConnell, Ryan, those guys have long since abandoned the principles of loyalty to country. They’ll bitch about anything that even seemingly hurts their party. It would take the focus off of Trump’s stunning incompetence, and make the election look like “politics as usual.”
There’s also the argument that giving Trump the stupid briefing is just good precedent. We can be sure that “President” Trump will not extend this courtesy to his future challengers. But until that dread day comes, we should still at least act like politics stop at the water’s edge. We want our potential leaders to be informed, and we have to keep assuming that Trump is an aberration of ignorance, unlikely to be repeated once this threat is beaten back.
But the best reason to give Trump the updates is that Trump’s ability (or lack thereof) to keep even a low-level state “secret” from his Twitter followers is relevant to this election. He will misuse this information, somehow, and the country needs to see that. The utility of idiocy cuts both ways. Trump is a Russian patsy, but he’s also his own worst enemy.
Giving Trump a security briefing is like giving a man a rope in a forest, cranking up the Radiohead, and waiting for him to figure out how to hang himself.