What Is Treason, How Does It Work and Will Donald Trump Jr. Be Guilty?

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino on October 8, 2015, in Las Vegas. Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

Conservatives were railing against the media, pundits were worrying about the White House, and—perhaps most significantly—lawmakers were using the word "treason" this week in the wake of Donald Trump Jr.'s Tuesday decision to tweet out emails showing he set up a meeting with Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and a Russian lawyer last summer in hopes of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton.

On Tuesday night, for example, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, formerly Clinton's Democratic running mate, told reporters that though nothing had yet been proved in the probe into whether the Trump campaign had ties to the Kremlin's plot to influence the 2016 election, big charges could be coming.

Related: Donald Trump Jr. "treason" emails prove Russian collusion: Tim Kaine

"We're now beyond obstruction of justice in terms of what's being investigated," Kaine said. "This is moving into perjury, false statements and even potentially treason."

He's not the only one. Kaine's comments came just after Richard Painter, who served as an ethics lawyer under former President George W. Bush, declared on MSNBC that the Trump Jr. scandal "borders on treason, if it is not itself treason."

But what does that actually entail?

According to the Constitution, "Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort." Those are pretty narrow ramifications: As Vox explained, the levying war provision refers to a person trying to form an actual army to fight the government à la John Brown, the abolitionist who raided Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. The U.S. also restricts the word "enemy" to mean nations it's at war with.

Since the U.S. is not technically at war with Russia, Trump Jr. can't be prosecuted for treason, as University of California, Davis, law professor Carlton F.W. Larson wrote in The Washington Postearlier this year.

That doesn't mean the first son won't face other charges. Painter and his fellow ex–White House ethics czar Norm Eisen wrote in The New York Timesthat treasonous conduct can be—and has been—tried under other names. Meanwhile, Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, told Slate that Trump Jr. was in a "hole of criminality."

"I think his emails and tweets show he's likely broken federal law prohibiting meetings and exchanges of the kind he had," Gerhardt said. "I would say that if the president or any other high-ranking executive branch official knew about or participated in meetings like this, there would be at the very least a basis for an impeachment inquiry."

But that is, quite literally, a whole other story.