President Trump said Thursday that former Secretary of State John F. Kerry “should be prosecuted” for speaking privately with Iranian officials and, the president claimed, discouraging them from negotiating with his administration.
“He's talking to Iran and has been, has many meetings and many phone calls and he's telling them what to do,” Trump said at the White House. “And that is a total violation of the Logan Act.”
Only two people have ever been charged under the Logan Act, which was passed in 1799 and forbids private citizens from unauthorized negotiating with foreign governments.
As secretary of State from 2013 to 2017 under President Obama, Kerry helped negotiate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Kerry said last fall that he has met “three or four times” since leaving office with his former counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
After the 2016 election, but before Trump took office, several members of his transition team held discussions with foreign envoys, prompting calls from some Democrats that they be charged under the Logan Act. None were.
The president lashed out at Kerry amid escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran, which announced Wednesday that it would stop complying with some terms of the nuclear accord and may start enriching uranium again in 60 days, a more serious step.
A year ago, Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal, which eased or lifted sanctions in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear ambitions. The other signatories have largely stuck by the agreement even as the Trump administration has reimposed stiff sanctions on Iran’s banks, oil exports, petrochemicals and other sectors.
Kerry’s spokesman, Matt Summers, disputed Trump’s account of Kerry’s conversations and his characterizations of the nuclear deal.
“Everything President Trump said today is simply wrong, end of story,” Summers said in a statement. “He's wrong about the facts, wrong about the law, and sadly he's been wrong about how to use diplomacy to keep America safe.”
Kerry, who was the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, “helped negotiate a nuclear agreement that worked to solve an intractable problem,” he added. “The world supported it then and supports it still.”
The White House announced Sunday that it was sending an aircraft carrier task force and Air Force bombers to the Persian Gulf area in response to what it said was intelligence indicating possible Iranian targeting of U.S. forces or allies in the region. It’s not clear when they will arrive.
Asked Thursday about the possibility of a military confrontation with Iran, Trump did not rule it out during a rambling discussion with reporters after an event in the Roosevelt Room meant to showcase a Republican proposal to help patients with unexpected medical bills.
“I don't want to say no, but hopefully that won't happen,” he said.
He said he was open to negotiating a new arms control deal with Iran’s leaders, one that would include limits on their ballistic missiles and on what the White House calls Iran’s “malign activities” in the region.
“I’d like to see [Iran’s leaders] call me,” he 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 — only the Democrats do that kind of stuff.”
Trump has repeatedly called on the Justice Department to investigate or jail his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, former FBI officials and others who he alleges violated the law.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Atty. Gen. William Barr struggled to answer a question from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who asked whether the president or any other administration official “ever asked or suggested [he] open an investigation into anyone?”
After Trump called for Kerry’s prosecution Thursday, Harris sent Barr a letter requesting clarification of his response in light of the president’s “troubling” remarks.
“The President all but confirmed that he has made such a request when he called publicly for the prosecution of a former cabinet secretary and then stated that his ‘people’ disagreed with him,” wrote Harris, who is one of 21 Democrats seeking the party’s presidential nomination.
In his comments, Trump made a sales pitch similar to the one he has given North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in an as-yet unsuccessful effort to get him to give up his country’s nuclear arsenal. The two leaders have met twice in the last year, but negotiations have stalled.
“I want [Iran] to be strong and great and have a great economy, but they're listening to John Kerry, who's violating a very important element of what he's supposed to be doing,” Trump said.
It wasn’t the first time Trump has attacked Kerry. Last September, he tweeted that the former secretary’s private conversations with Iran’s top diplomat were “illegal.”
At the time, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo called Kerry’s behavior “unseemly” and “inappropriate.”