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The problem with Trump accusing John Kerry of a crime

Trump pressing behind the scenes for his perceived enemies to be prosecuted is critically important -- but so is public lobbying for the same thing.
Secretary of State John Kerry signs the certification to the U.S. government that  IAEA certified Iran's compliance in their report, requesting the lifting of the nuclear-related sanctions, Vienna, Jan. 16, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Secretary of State John Kerry signs the certification to the U.S. government that  IAEA certified Iran's compliance in their report, requesting the lifting of the nuclear-related sanctions, Vienna, Jan. 16, 2016. 

Among the most serious areas of concern surrounding Donald Trump's presidency is the eagerness with which he wants to use the levers of power to target his perceived enemies. Max Boot noted in a column last week, "While conferring legal immunity upon himself, Trump is eager to weaponize the legal system against his opponents. The Mueller report documents three separate occasions when Trump demanded a Justice Department investigation of Hillary Clinton."

But as critically important as it is -- to the rule of law, to the integrity of our system -- when a sitting president presses behind-the-scenes for his perceived enemies to be prosecuted, it also matters when he does the same thing in public.

President Donald Trump said on Thursday that John Kerry "should be prosecuted" for allegedly violating the Logan Act through his conversations with Iran, escalating a feud between his administration and the former secretary of State."John Kerry violated the Logan Act," Trump said during a White House press availability. "He's talking to Iran and has had many meetings and many phone calls and he's telling them what to do. That is total violation of the Logan Act."

A Kerry spokesperson told Politico in response, "[Trump's] wrong about the facts, wrong about the law, and sadly he's been wrong about how to use diplomacy to keep America safe. Secretary Kerry helped negotiate a nuclear agreement that worked to solve an intractable problem. The world supported it then and supports it still. We'd hope the president would focus on solving foreign policy problems for America instead of attacking his predecessors for theater."

If all of this seems familiar, it's not your imagination. In September 2018, the president used Twitter to accuse Kerry of holding "illegal meetings with the very hostile Iranian Regime." Two weeks ago, Trump peddled a similar line, also in a tweet. Today, the Republican made the pitch from a White House podium.

The repetition doesn't make the attack any better.

By any sensible measure, the president's assertions are tough to take seriously. As a Washington Post analysis noted, "[I]t's worth emphasizing that the case Trump lays out against Kerry is highly suspect. There is no evidence that Kerry is asking Iran not to conduct diplomatic talks with the Trump administration."

On the contrary, the idea that Kerry did something wrong is kind of silly. As we discussed in the fall, it's entirely routine for former U.S. diplomats to maintain relationships with their foreign counterparts. It's been the American norm for generations.

So what's the point of Trump's offensive? Some of this is probably an extension of a knee-jerk "Obama administration = bad" posture that comes too easily to Trump, but I continue to think the Republican is also preparing an excuse if/when the White House's current policy toward Iran collapses. Kerry probably looks like a convenient foil.

But as important as these details are, let's not miss the forest for the trees. The sitting American president publicly and casually accused the former secretary of state of a crime and whined a bit about the fact that Kerry won't be prosecuted.

There's no reason for this to be seen as a new normal in our politics.

Postscript: If the White House really wants to talk about the impropriety of Americans communicating to Iran in ways that may run counter to the administration's foreign policy, I'd love to introduce Trump to the 47 Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who wrote a letter to Iranian leaders, telling officials not to trust the United States four years ago.