One year ago, Donald Trump withdrew the United States from a diplomatic agreement with Iran, which had successfully persuaded Tehran to freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief. At the time, the White House tacitly acknowledged that Iran was complying with the agreement, but disparaged the deal on the grounds that it had failed to curb Iran’s regional influence and nonnuclear weapons programs.
In the 12 months since, the restoration of U.S. sanctions has exacerbated the suffering of ordinary Iranians, alienated America’s European allies, and just might have triggered the beginning of the end of the U.S. dollar’s reign as the global reserve currency (a development that could have devastating effects on Americans’ living standards in the decades to come). But it has done little to reduce Iran’s geopolitical footprint in the Middle East, or stall its ballistic weapons program. Meanwhile, Iran is now saying that it will resume enriching uranium if it is not provided sanctions relief within 60 days.
So, on Thursday, Trump announced that he would like to make a diplomatic agreement with Iran, in which the U.S. provides Tehran with sanctions relief in exchange for a freeze in its nuclear weapons program (and nothing else).
“What they should be doing is calling me up, sitting down and we can make a deal, a fair deal,” Trump told reporters. “We just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons. It’s not too much to ask. And we would help put them back into great shape.”
The president also ostensibly decided that he needed someone to blame for the fact that this deal does not already exist. So he chose to call for the prosecution of the former secretary of State who had negotiated the original Iran nuclear agreement, and implored him not to pull out of it.
“I’d like to see — with Iran, I’d like to see them call me,” Trump said. “You know, John Kerry speaks to them a lot. John Kerry tells them not to call. That’s a violation of the Logan Act. And frankly, he should be prosecuted on that. But my people don’t want to do anything that’s — only the Democrats do that kind of stuff, you know? If it were the opposite way, they’d prosecute him under the Logan Act.”
Trump went on to say “the Logan Act” several more times in a 60-second span, as though it were the “Obscure Legislation of the Day” on some civic-minded children’s show.
As the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake notes, there are multiple problems with Trump’s remarks. For one thing, they ostensibly reveal that the president has asked the Justice Department to prosecute one of his political adversaries (“my people don’t want to do anything that’s …”), a gross violation of DOJ norms. For another, the Logan Act is an archaic, likely unconstitutional statute that has virtually never been enforced. But, to the extent that we are going to treat it as binding law, multiple Trump administration officials clearly violated it during the transition period. The Logan Act forbids private citizens from contacting the representatives of foreign governments “with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States.”
In his special counsel’s report, Robert Mueller notes that in December 2016, the Obama administration wished for the United Nations to pass a resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. Meanwhile, Mueller writes, “the [Trump] Transition Team regarded the vote as a significant issue and wanted to support Israel by opposing the resolution. On December 22, 2016, multiple members of the Transition Team, as well as President-Elect Trump, communicated with foreign government officials to determine their views on the resolution and to rally support to delay the vote or defeat the resolution.”
Trump has produced no evidence that John Kerry’s talks with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif constituted attempts to “defeat the measures of the United States.” By contrast, we know for a fact that Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn attempted to undermine official U.S. policy toward Israel while they were still private citizens.
Anyhow, it’s not like Trump needed Kerry’s help to the “defeat the measures of the United States” with respect to Iran. It is now quite clear that the president did a bang-up job of that all by himself.