Traitor review: American perfidy, from Benedict Arnold to Donald J Trump

By Charles Kaiser

One of the most important qualities a good reporter can have is a very low threshold for outrage. Useful, critical coverage of your subject becomes impossible once nonchalance or indifference has inured you to scandal.

This has become a huge problem during Donald Trump’s presidency. Inside the souls of far too many Washington reporters, a never-ending wave of scandals, crimes, indictments and assorted obstructions of justice has washed away this essential capacity for indignation – just when the republic needs it most.

That’s why a book like David Rothkopf’s Traitor still serves a vital purpose, even after dozens of other books and thousands of articles about the president’s felonious behavior. A former senior official in the Clinton administration and editor of Foreign Policy who has taught at Columbia and Georgetown, Rothkopf still has all of the anger a good chronicler of the Trump administration requires.

“Trump is despicable,” he writes. “But beyond his defective or perhaps even non-existent 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 such catastrophes in the future.”

Russia’s success in putting Trump in office, he writes, “has to be seen as perhaps the most successful international intelligence operation of modern times”. Rothkopf is implying that our president is the literal Manchurian Candidate, without the denouement which made the movie feel more like a caution than a foreshadowing.

Drawing on the Mueller report, assorted congressional investigations and the work of the capital’s still-functioning reporters, Rothkopf provides an important roadmap through the massive evidence of collaboration between the Trump campaign and the Russian secret services – including 272 contacts between “Trump team members and Russian-linked individuals, in almost 40 meetings”, noting that “at least 33 high-ranking campaign officials, and Trump advisers” were aware of these contacts, including, of course, Trump himself.

In between detailing Trump’s transgressions at the beginning and the end of this compact volume, Rothkopf provides a brisk history of many other Americans rightly or wrongly accused of treason, from Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr to Robert E Lee and Alger Hiss. He drops in plenty of of interesting historical tidbits, like the fact Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were born a hundred miles and less than a year apart.

He’s particularly good on John Brown, the violent abolitionist who was convicted of treason against the state of Virginia. Victor Hugo called him a hero and predicted that if he wasn’t pardoned, it would “certainly shake the whole American democracy”. But instead of a pardon, there was a prompt hanging – witnessed by both Walt Whitman and John Wilkes Booth. And of course Brown’s death also inspired the writing of what eventually became The Battle Hymn of the Republic. When it was first sung by Union soldiers during the civil war, the essential lines were “John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave, His Soul’s marching on!”

Back on the main subject, of our modern traitor, Rothkopf is appropriately harsh about the shortcomings of Robert Mueller, including his failure as special counsel to secure an in-person interview with the president and his refusal to indict the president for any of the crimes his report describes, including as many as 10 counts of obstruction of justice.

Mueller was relying on a famous justice department memo of 2000 which rules out the indictment of sitting presidents, but which has never been litigated in federal court.

“There is no question in my mind that the memo is wrong,” writes Rothkopf, whose view is shared by the Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe. “But what is salient here is that by embracing its views, Mueller was relieved of the obligation to do what prosecutors do, and that is to make a charging decision.”

Benedict Arnold persuades Major Andre to conceal papers, to be sent to the British to enable them to capture West Point, in his boot.
Benedict Arnold persuades Major Andre to conceal papers, to be sent to the British to enable them to capture West Point, in his boot. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At the end of the book, Rothkopf lists all of Trump’s greatest failings in 10 paragraphs. His recitation reminded me of Dayenu, the great Passover hymn to all of God’s gifts to the Israelites, punctuated by the refrain, “That would have been enough!” Only in Rothkopf’s version, everything is too much – and the subject is the supreme pagan.

“It’s the racism. But it’s not just the racism. It’s sex crimes. But it’s not just the sex crimes. It’s the concentration camps along our southern border. But it’s not just the concentration camps. It’s the corruption. But it’s not just the corruption.

“It’s the attacks on our most important allies and alliances. But it’s not just the attacks on our most important allies and alliances. It’s the systematic destruction of our environment …”

The author concludes that Trumpism “is a disease that has infected our system and is killing it”. In just 16 days’ time, America has its last best chance to rescue itself from this scourge. Right now there are decent odds the election’s verdict will inspire several new, joyful verses for The Battle Hymn of the Republic.