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Donald Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine led to his impeachment but did not rise to the level of treason, which is defined in the U.S. Constitution.
This claim from a veterans advocacy group refers to a wording change in the Republican Party platform that pertains to arming Ukraine in its fight against Russia.
But the platform does not amount to an official policy of appeasing Russian President Vladimir Putin, as it still contains language about assisting Ukraine and warning Russia about aggression against Ukraine or other nations.
The progressive veterans advocacy group VoteVets made several accurate statements in an attack ad that seeks to tie former President Donald Trump and fellow Republicans to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But it followed up those statements with an exaggerated and misleading conclusion.
Here are the ad’s central claims:
"Remember, Donald Trump was impeached for threatening to withhold military aid from Ukraine." This is accurate. The House on Dec. 18, 2019, impeached Trump on two charges — abuse of power, in holding up security assistance and a White House meeting to put pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and obstruction of Congress to cover up that campaign.
"And remember, 52 out of 53 Republican senators voted to let Trump get away with it." This, too, is accurate. The Senate on Feb. 5, 2020, acquitted Trump of both charges. The only Republican voting to convict was Utah’s Mitt Romney, on the abuse of power charge.
The ad, launched six days after Russia invaded Ukraine, then ends with an incendiary claim that lacks the same level of accuracy. It declared:
"Donald Trump’s appeasement of Putin wasn’t just a personal act of treason, it’s the Republican Party’s official position."
What the ad described as Trump’s appeasement of Putin did not amount to treason, because Trump’s acts did not occur during wartime or during an armed rebellion.
The U.S. Constitution mentions very few crimes specifically, but is clearly defines treason:
"Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.
"The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted."
On the most basic level, treason has to occur in wartime, or during an armed rebellion against the U.S. government. While there are tensions between Putin and the United States amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, President Joe Biden has been very pointed in saying the United States would not join the conflict.
Trump faced accusations of treason after he and Putin held a news conference on July 16, 2018 following a one-on-one meeting in Helsinki, Finland. Asked if he believed his own intelligence agencies or the Russian president when it came to the allegations of Russia meddling in the elections, Trump said: "President Putin says it's not Russia. I don't see any reason why it would be."
Trump later claimed he misspoke, saying: "The sentence should have been, ‘I don't see any reason why I wouldn't, or, why it wouldn't be Russia.’"
To back the second part of its claim, VoteVets, whose senior advisers include former National Security Council official Alexander Vindman, cited the Republican Party’s change of position on arming Ukraine.
In 2016, as Trump claimed the Republican nomination for president, the GOP originally wrote a platform that was to call for providing Ukraine with weapons in addition to the substantial nonlethal aid the U.S. already provides, news outlets reported at the time. After Trump surrogates reportedly intervened, the final passage supported "providing appropriate assistance" to Ukraine, but didn't mention providing arms to the government in Kiev, the Los Angeles Times reported. PolitiFact found there was evidence that Trump’s campaign was involved in making the change.
VoteVets argued that appeasing Putin is the GOP’s official position because of that platform change; because Romney was the only Republican senator who voted to convict Trump; and because the Republican National Committee decided not to adopt a 2020 platform, leaving the 2016 platform in place.
The 2016 platform softened language on helping Ukraine’s armed forces, but issued warnings to Russia and complained that "a weak (Obama) Administration has invited aggression":
"We support maintaining and, if warranted, increasing sanctions, together with our allies, against Russia unless and until Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are fully restored. We also support providing appropriate assistance to the armed forces of Ukraine and greater coordination with NATO defense planning….
"Repressive at home and reckless abroad, their (Kremlin officials’) policies imperil the nations which regained their self-determination upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. We will meet the return of Russian belligerence with the same resolve that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. We will not accept any territorial change in Eastern Europe imposed by force, in Ukraine, Georgia, or elsewhere, and will use all appropriate constitutional measures to bring to justice the practitioners of aggression and assassination."
In 2020, the party declined to adopt a platform at all. Instead, the Republican National Committee reiterated its "strong support" for Trump and his administration.
In 2022, Trump praised Putin, at least tactically, for his invasion of Ukraine. He said:
"I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of Ukraine, Putin declares it as independent. So, Putin is now saying, ‘It’s independent,’ a large section of Ukraine. I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he’s going to go in and be a peacekeeper.… That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen. There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They’re going to keep peace, all right. No, but think of it. Here’s a guy who’s very savvy… I know him very well. Very, very well."
Many Republicans, however, have not embraced Trump’s remarks.
Former Vice President Mike Pence told GOP donors, according to CNN: "There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin. There is only room for champions of freedom."
Asked about Trump’s comments, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said: "What President Putin did as a ruthless thug is just invade — invaded another sovereign country and killed thousands of innocent people."
Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said about Trump’s comments: "Putin is a murderous thug and I think the world is now seeing that. That’s my view of it and I think that’s going to be most Americans’ view of it. That was before, and will be for sure after, what we’re seeing on display."
Other Republican lawmakers have moved to provide arms to Ukraine in the wake of the invasion or to stop the U.S. from buying energy from Russia and other sanctions.
"Trump wanted to create a different relationship with Russia, because none of the traditional barriers to cooperation, such as human rights, violating the territorial integrity of the neighbors, or kleptocracy, bothered him," said Yuval Weber, a professor at Texas A&M University's Bush School of Government and Public Service in Washington. "He was much more interested in leveraging Russia against China and shaping a less constrained international order that would allow larger powers to run roughshod over others, without the limitations of international law, institutions, or norms."
VoteVets said: "Donald Trump's appeasement of Putin wasn't just a personal act of treason, it's the Republican Party's official position."
Trump’s acts regarding Ukraine that resulted in his impeachment did not rise to the level of treason. And the Republican Party does not have an official position to appease Putin.
In 2016, the party removed from its platform language about arming Ukraine in its fight against Russia, but the platform contained language threatening action against any future Russian aggression.
Meanwhile, as Trump has said complimentary things about Putin, other Republican leaders have heavily criticized Putin’s actions.
The statement contains only an element of truth. We rate it Mostly False.
YouTube, VoteVets "Party of Putin" ad, March 2, 2022
Twitter, VoteVets tweet, March 2, 2022
Email, VoteVets spokesperson Eric Schmeltzer, March 7, 2022
Email, Republican National Committee spokesperson Emma Vaughn, March 8, 2022
Roll Call, "As Ukraine burns, Washington splits over how to help," March 2, 2022
PolitiFact, "Timeline: The Trump impeachment inquiry," Oct. 3, 2019, updated Feb. 6, 2020
PolitiFact, "A closer look at claims of treason after Trump's meeting with Russian President Putin," July 23, 2018
PolitiFact, "Did Trump campaign soften platform language to benefit Russia?", Aug. 4, 2016
The Hill, "GOP senators push back hard on Trump's praise of Putin," March 1, 2022
Los Angeles Times, "In a shift, Republican platform doesn’t call for arming Ukraine against Russia, spurring outrage," July 21, 2016
Politico, "How senators voted on Trump’s impeachment," Feb. 5, 2020
Republican National Committee, resolution on no 2020 platform, accessed March 7, 2022
CNN, "Pence condemns Republican Putin 'apologists' in speech to RNC donors," March 5, 2022
U.S. Constitution, treason provision
"Republican Party 2016 platform," accessed March 7, 2022
ClayAndBuck.com, "Full Interview: President Trump With C&B From Mar-A-Lago," Feb. 22, 2022
Email, Yuval Weber, professor at Texas A&M University's Bush School of Government and Public Service in Washington, March 8, 2022
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