Bandy X. Lee M.D., M.Div.

Psychiatry in Society

Treason or Not Treason?

Democracy is mental health at larger scale.

Posted Jul 20, 2018

This is not a question mental health professionals can answer, but we can add to it, and what we have to add is an important task of citizenship. During the press conference following the president’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it became clear that Donald Trump was siding with a nation presently attacking us, rather than with his own nation. Republican Senator John McCain called the meeting a “tragic mistake” (Reuters Staff, 2018). And as of this morning, we learned that he has invited Putin to Washington, DC, in a way that has blindsided his intelligence chief (Landler, 2018). A couple of weeks earlier, a group of concerned mental health professionals, including myself, had sent in a warning to all Congress members, stating: “The current situation, with the signs that [Mr. Trump] exhibits, should preclude his partaking in any more consequential decisions.”  We did not hear back, but the tragedy was predictable.

Many who watched Trump at the Helsinki conference are wondering what Putin could have on him to produce the kind of obsequious behavior he displayed (Davidson, 2018). What is left out of the equation is that it may not even take compromising material to have a grip on him. What is certain in the symbolic gesture of Putin’s handing Donald Trump a soccer ball—in contrast to the geopolitical realignment Trump just achieved for him—is that Putin possesses considerable psychological shrewdness and understands Trump well. Our nation, on the other hand, has refused even to allow mental health professionals to voice their serious concerns about the weak and dangerous mental makeup that would obviously render Trump manipulable for adversaries. Now, the president’s confusing statements, corrections, and corrections of corrections in the past several days have more and more Americans feeling troubled about their leader.

“Has Trump violated his oath of office and committed treason?” is a question rightly circulating about the Internet (Lindquist, 2018). According to a dictionary definition, treason is: “the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance” (Merriam-Webster, 2011). According to the U.S. Constitution, Article III, Section 3: “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” (Constitutional Convention, 1787). Broad or narrow in definition, it is a serious political charge.

Whatever we call it, and despite the locus of politics in which the turmoil is occurring, we cannot deny that the actions of the American president follow familiar patterns for mental health experts—those that concern mental health. Mental health professionals ordinarily have no business, or need, to weigh in on politics. However, since politics presupposes mental capacity and a basic level of health, it is our obligation to point out when this is likely not the case and requires proper attention. The obligation heightens when national security is at stake.

Legal investigations will continue, but there should be parallel mental health evaluations. Mental impairment does not necessarily exonerate from criminal responsibility, but impairment and criminal intent together can make individuals more dangerous. That the Trump-Putin meeting would end in a disaster that would destabilize the world order while elevating a thug autocrat, who has occupied his position for eighteen years, holds over 150 political prisoners, and has crushed freedom of speech, was largely predictable from a mental health perspective.

What more could happen? Since Trump likes to call much of the press “dishonest”, or “the enemy of the people,” once Trump and Putin controlled all information, anything is possible. As Trump called the European Union a “foe” and even suggested to U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May that she sue the E.U., Trump and Putin may declare the E.U. a common enemy. Instead of nuclear disarmament, the U.S. and Russia could contemplate joining forces and waging Trump’s decades-old dream of a nuclear war against, say, Iran. Preoccupied with themselves and their own power, Trump and Putin are likely to neglect urgent problems such as climate change and global poverty. In refusing to call out Russia’s attack of our elections, its assassination of dissidents, its shooting down of a Malaysian airliner, and its murderous assault on Syria, Trump opens the road not only for more brutality but for further threatening democracy. By choosing to believe Putin over the unanimous conclusion of his own national intelligence agencies, he has demonstrated, before the world, his aiding and abetting an enemy’s attack on the very nation he is supposed to protect.

Neurosurgeon and medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta was the best to articulate this psychiatrist’s concerns when I called for a capacity evaluation in January: “The question Lee is hoping to answer: Can the president make informed decisions about the welfare of the population?” (Gupta, 2018). A mental capacity evaluation, especially performed by an independent, forensic professional, is a standardized process that can be applied to any mental process in question, including the capacity of a president to make decisions that place the nation before himself.

As uncomfortable as the question is, we can no longer put psychological matters aside. It is a moment when defending democracy, the rule of law, and human rights also means responding appropriately to a mental health problem.  We also cannot normalize it—which would be very dangerous. Criminal and conspiratorial wrongdoing will be investigated, but so should mental impairment. One might explain the other, but more likely, both are occurring at the same time—which would indicate exponentially greater danger.  If so, then the people have a right to know this of their president.

Mental impairment is a real and serious phenomenon. The moral spectrum of those who suffer from it runs the same gamut as the general population, and is a separate question. Mental pathology is often beyond the imagination of those who are not familiar with it, and investigating it further will help us to prevent potential catastrophes that could result from an advancing special counsel’s probe. The ordinary person is capable of putting aside lesser needs if one’s own or humanity’s safety or survival were at stake. To presume that everyone has this capacity could have disastrous consequences.

References

Constitutional Convention (1787). The Constitution of the United States. Philadelphia, PA: Constitutional Convention. Retrievable at: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript#toc-article-ii-.

Davidson, A. (2018). A theory of Trump kompromat. New Yorker. Retrievable at: https://www.newyorker.com/news-desk/swamp-chronicles/a-theory-of-trump-kompromat

Gupta, S. (2018). ‘Competent’ or ‘crazy’ misses the point of presidential mental health. CNN. Retrievable at: https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/12/health/presidential-mental-health-gupta/index.html

Landler, M. (2018). Trump to invite Putin to Washington, blindsiding his intelligence chief. New York Times. Retrievable at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/19/us/politics/trump-putin-browder-mcfaul.html

Lindquist, S. (2018). Has Trump violated his oath of office and committed treason? Chicago Tribune. Retrievable at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-trump-treason-oath-of-office-0720-20180719-story.html

Reuters Staff (2018). Senator McCain says Trump summit with Putin ‘tragic mistake.’ Reuters. Retrievable at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-summit-mccain/senator-mccain-says-trump-summit-with-putin-tragic-mistake-idUSKBN1K62FN

Merriam-Webster (2011). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.