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Why Trump and Pompeo are going after John Kerry so aggressively

It's likely the White House knows Donald Trump's policy toward Iran is going to fail -- at which point Republicans will need someone to blame.
Image: NATO Summit In Brussels - Day Two
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - JULY 12: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks besides U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a news conference at the 2018 NATO Summit...

Throughout Barack Obama's presidency, Republican efforts to undermine U.S. foreign policy were extraordinary, and by some measures, unprecedented. In one especially glaring instance, 47 Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), wrote a letter to Iranian leaders, telling officials not to trust the United States. The goal wasn't subtle: GOP lawmakers hoped to sabotage their own country's diplomacy in the middle of delicate international nuclear talks.

In an odd twist, Republicans are now accusing John Kerry of doing something similar.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has unloaded on his Obama-era predecessor John Kerry for "actively undermining" U.S. policy on Iran by meeting several times recently with the Iranian foreign minister.In unusually blunt and caustic language, Pompeo said Friday that Kerry's meetings with Mohammad Javad Zarif -- who was his main interlocutor in the Iran nuclear deal negotiations -- were "unseemly and unprecedented" and "beyond inappropriate."President Donald Trump had late Thursday accused Kerry of holding "illegal meetings with the very hostile Iranian Regime, which can only serve to undercut our great work to the detriment of the American people."

The current secretary of state added in a tweet over the weekend, "What [John Kerry] has done by engaging with Iran's regime, the world's top state sponsor of terror, is unseemly, unprecedented, and inconsistent with U.S. foreign policy. The deal failed. Let it go."

This is all quite foolish. For one thing, the international nuclear agreement with Iran was working exactly as intended, right up until Donald Trump rejected the policy for reasons the White House has struggled to explain in a coherent way. (Pompeo has long given every indication that he doesn't know what he's talking about on the subject, arguing last month that the Iran deal "failed to restrain Iran's nuclear progress." The truth is the exact opposite.)

For another, it's not exactly unusual, much less "illegal," for former U.S. diplomats to maintain relationships with the foreign counterparts. On the contrary, it's been the American norm for generations.

What's more, Pompeo may believe Kerry was "actively undermining U.S. policy," but there's ample evidence to the contrary. Indeed, Colin Kahl, a former adviser to Barack Obama and Joe Biden, explained over the weekend, "Encouraging Iran to tamp down its destabilizing behavior and encouraging Iran to exercise patience and restraint for the remainder of Trump's term by not restarting its nuke program in response to Trump's actions, actually seems broadly consistent with stated U.S. goals."

But note Kahl's follow-up point: "Of course, it's not consistent with a policy aimed at baiting Iran into restarting it nuke program to justify the war that Bolton & Pompeo have long desired. And it's not consistent with baiting Iran into provocations to justify coerced regime change."

And this brings us to what I suspect is actually going on. The fact that Kerry has maintained professional relationships with foreign officials, just like every other former Secretary of State, is uninteresting. Kerry informed the Trump administration of his communications months ago and updated administration officials on what he'd learned. Trump administration officials found this all so normal that they didn't bother to whine about it -- that is, until last week.

It's possible the president and his team are looking to create a distraction from the Russia scandal. It's also possible Pompeo doesn't actually believe his misguided talking points, but he started peddling nonsense because Trump wanted him to.

What I suspect is the true motivation, however, is the realization within the Trump administration that the president's policy toward Iran is going to fail and the odds of a confrontation will improve -- at which point Republicans will need someone other than Trump to hold responsible.

As a result, the White House and Pompeo's office have concocted a ridiculous conspiracy theory -- John Kerry is engaged in an illegal scheme to undermine his own country's foreign policy -- that's probably intended to create a fall guy who can be blamed for their own incompetence.