Will Trump Hang?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

It’s not too far-fetched to imagine that Donald Trump is guilty of high treason, that is, giving “Aid and Comfort” to the enemies of the United States.

From his two impeachment trials and from his many pending criminal investigations, we know that to remain in high office Trump was willing to obstruct justice, lie to Congress, send thugs to Ukraine, blackmail foreign officials, withhold military aid approved by Congress, pay off porn stars, threaten election officials counting votes, imagine voter fraud, gin up slates of phony electors, march goons to the Capitol, cheer on attacks with hockey sticks against Washington police, and try to hang his vice-president.

With that as his record, why would it be a stretch to surmise that some of the purloined documents and state secrets stashed away in Mar-a-Lago shower rooms have ended up in the files of foreign operatives who would do harm to the country?

Spying Dues

I have never been to his Elba on the Atlantic, but I have heard accounts of it from friends who have eaten there, and what they describe is a seaside resort that has minimal security (a little screening to get inside), a pay-as-you-go membership list, Trump spinning discs as if some pervy DJ with a comb over, and the overall sense that the winter White House operated more as Studio 54 than any center of political decision-making.

To join Mar-a-Lago, all you have to do is stump up $250,000 and pay annual dues of $14,000, amounts that would hardly scare away members of the world’s intelligence agencies, all off whom would consider that chump change if, in exchange, they could get their assets close to the American president and his golden showers stuffed with state secrets.

How hard would it be for any serious intelligence organization to recruit some suitable Mar-a-Lago members to prowl around the grounds, maybe between renditions of Trump favorite Macho Man, or to pry open a few banker boxes that clearly were everywhere, including on stage in the club ballroom.

Why would anyone think that Mar-a-Lago hasn’t been penetrated at every level, if the only cost of entry is $250,000 and training some undercover agent to hit a sand wedge?

Papering the House

Of course, there is also the strong possibility that the operatives lurking around the bar at Mar-a-Lago don’t need to trouble themselves with breaking into pool rooms or unpacking boxes piled up in saunas, because if you spend enough time at the club Trump himself will spill the beans on some weapons program or Iranian invasion plan.

In the Oval Office, according to numerous published accounts, Trump’s aides had no luck whatsoever in enticing the president to read any of the state papers associated with the presidency.

No matter what was happening, Trump was indifferent to the reports in his in-box and governed entirely from what he learned watching Fox News. That he held on to his briefing books does not mean he read or understood them.

To quote Willy Loman, “the only thing you got in this world is what you can sell,” and perhaps the only thing that interested Trump about his presidential papers is what they could fetch on the open market. We know he wasn’t using them to make laws or good decisions.

To Trump, presidential records were like real estate options—something that could sold at a later date, assuming the market had moved in his direction. I have to assume—as he shipped all the documents to Mar-a-Lago—that the buyers of this paper are to be found in the club membership.

By many accounts, Trump loved nothing more than entertaining foreign leaders and officials on the dining room terrace, and at those meetings even casual onlookers could see him waving around state papers as if they were floor plans for some condo opening.

What’s clear is that Mar-a-Lago was less of a golf club and more of an auction house.

The Small Print of the Espionage Act

With such a massive breach in state security, one might think that the FBI or some other investigative body would have closed down Mar-a-Lago and be running down the membership and their guests, to determine who on the buffet line had reciprocal rights with Mossad, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, or Saudi’s General Intelligence Directorate.

Amazingly, when Trump was indicted on 37 federal charges in Miami, the federal court was uninterested in asking who else might have had access to his boxes—as if the charges against him related to building code violations.

I am not a big fan of the Espionage Act, which President Woodrow Wilson rammed through Congress in 1917 so that he could muzzle the press and keep the political opposition from interfering with his plans to turn the United States into a surveillance state and gun-running economy.

Nevertheless, the Espionage Act is clear that in times of war—Ukraine might well count in that regard—the penalty for its violation can be death. Even if this isn’t deemed a time of war, the sentence for conviction would still be twenty years, a lifetime for someone Trump’s age, 77.

Here’s how Section 2 of the Espionage Act reads:

Whoever, with intent or reason to believe that it is to be used to the injury or the United States or to the advantage of a foreign nation, communicated, delivers, or transmits, or attempts to, or aids, or induces another to, communicate, deliver or transmit, to any foreign government, or to any faction or party or military or naval force within a foreign country, whether recognized or unrecognized by the United States, or to any representative, officer, agent, employee, subject, or citizen thereof, either directly or indirectly and document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blue print, plan, map, model, note, instrument, appliance, or information relating to the national defence, shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than twenty years: Provided, That whoever shall violate the provisions of subsection:

(a) of this section in time of war shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for not more than thirty years;

Admittedly, this clause covers an array of sins, but surely by this point some of the Mar-a-Lago stash will have been shared with “any representative, officer, agent, employee, subject, or citizen thereof [of a foreign country], either directly or indirectly…”

No wonder former fix-it Attorney General William Barr thinks his old boss is “toast”.

Benedict Arnold’s Heirs

If it is found that some of the Trump stolen documents have been passed to or sold to foreign governments (“either directly or indirectly”), the former president could well be charged with treason, for which, in some cases, the penalty is death.

In the war of the American Revolution, the turncoat American general Benedict Arnold conspired with British Major John André to surrender the fort at West Point (now the military academy) to the British. After one of their meetings, André was arrested and it was discovered that he had various plans of West Point (given to him by Arnold) in his boots. André was also dressed as a civilian.

At his subsequent trial, André argued that he was not a spy operating behind enemy lines but a serving British officer who should be held as a prisoner of war.

George Washington, among others on the board that heard the case, disagreed, and he came to the conclusion that André should be hanged as spy. (There was some talk of bartering him for Arnold who had meanwhile defected to British lines.) Yet again, André argued against the majority, saying he should at least be paid the honor to be shot as an officer and gentleman. Again Washington disagreed, and Andre hanged on October 2, 1780.

Ironically, the only evidence against André were the plans to West Point found in his boots while Trump scattered numerous national security documents around Mar-a-Lago locker rooms, as if it were a fraternity house, albeit one with Chinese operatives in the pledge class.

The Velocity of Scandal

Earlier in his life, all that was required for Trump to show up on the front pages of New York tabloids was for him to cheat on one his many wives, declare bankruptcy and stiff his creditors, or demand the death penalty for some teenagers suspected (unfairly) of a crime.

Now with the morbid appetite of cable news and social media much higher than before, Trump has learned that to dominate ratings it isn’t enough to insult political opponents or fawn over the likes of supreme leaders Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un.

To win the sweeps, Trump needs to accelerate the velocity of his scandals, which with each passing week feel more akin to the nefarious deeds of moles Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanssen—weak, raging men desperate for money and fame, not unlike Trump.

Trump’s dizzying parade of scandals—either to satisfy his ego or to boost his ratings on television and social media—get more outrageous with each news cycle.

The end will either be martial law, with fascist banners hanging from the White House balconies, or perhaps Trump’s primetime execution on the charge of high treason, if and when it becomes clear that he had the plans to West Point in his shower slippers.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.