Intel: Why Trump is calling a Democrat’s Iran meeting illegal

al-monitor Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., attends a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 5, 2017. President Donald Trump has accused Murphy of violating the rarely enforced 1799 Logan Act by recently meeting with Iran's foreign minister in Munich. Photo by REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein.

Feb 19, 2020

President Donald Trump doubled down on his accusation today that Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., violated the law by meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the annual Munich Security Conference over the weekend.

Trump tweeted that Murphy’s meeting — as well as a 2018 meeting between Zarif and former Secretary of State John Kerry — violated an obscure 18th century law called the Logan Act. The rarely enforced 1799 law bars unauthorized American citizens from negotiating with foreign powers locked in disputes with the United States.

“Kerry & Murphy illegally violated the Logan Act,” Trump tweeted. “This is why Iran is not making a deal. Must be dealt with strongly!”

Why it matters: Murphy, the top Democrat on the Senate’s Middle East panel and one of the staunchest opponents of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, defended the Zarif meeting in a Tuesday blog post on the Medium publishing platform after Trump first accused him of violating the Logan Act. The Federalist, a conservative media outlet, first broke the news of the meeting Monday.

Murphy wrote that he intended to “gauge whether he thinks the reprisals for the [Qasem Soleimani] assassination are over” and to “make sure it is 100% clear to him [Zarif] that if any groups in Iraq that are affiliated with Iran attack the United States’ forces in Iraq, this will be perceived as an unacceptable scalation.”

The Connecticut senator also noted that they discussed Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis and the rebels’ proposal to implement a 2% humanitarian aid tax, which “caused the Trump administration to rightly consider pulling our aid efforts.” He also raised the issue of US prisoners held in Iran.

Political football: Trump first accused Kerry last year of violating the Logan Act for meeting with Zarif. Some proponents of the nuclear accord in turn accused Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and 46 other Republican senators of violating the Logan Act in 2015 for sending a letter to Iranian leaders in a bid to undercut President Barack Obama’s attempts to reach a deal.

Finally, Trump’s tweet today also referenced the concerns of some Obama administration officials that Michael Flynn — who was briefly Trump's national security adviser — may have violated the Logan Act in a phone call with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition.

What’s next: Despite all frequent political weaponization of the Logan Act in recent years, it is unlikely that the Justice Department will prosecute anyone under the statute. Only two people have ever been charged with violating in the archaic law — both in the 19th century — neither of whom were successfully prosecuted.

Know more: The spat over the Logan Act comes amid a broader dispute between Trump and Congress over his Iran war powers authorities. Read Congressional Correspondent Bryant Harris for insight into how lawmakers are trying to rein in Trump on Iranian military action, and Pentagon Correspondent Jack Detsch for the latest on the ongoing tit-for-tat between Washington and Tehran in Iraq and Yemen.

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