A day after President Donald Trump slammed former Secretary of State John Kerry for private meetings with a top Iranian official, a North Carolina state Senate candidate lobbed similar accusations in a tweet of his own.
"When will the President Strip Former Sec of State of his Security Clearance," said Republican Rickey Padgett, who is running to unseat Democrat Mike Woodard in District 22. "With John Kerry now working on the behalf of foreign terrorist governments (Now) should be the answer. Drain the Swamp now! John Kerry should be next!"
Before Trump’s decision in May to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — which had lifted some economic sanctions on Iran so long as Iran discontinued its pursuit of nuclear weapons — Kerry worked behind the scenes to preserve the pact, according to a May 4 report by the Boston Globe detailing the quiet lobbying efforts as described by anonymous sources.
Who has Kerry been meeting with?
Specifically, Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and made several phone calls to European officials and members of Congress in an effort to rescue the deal. Kerry, who was the nuclear deal’s chief architect under President Barack Obama, said during an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, that he met with Zarif three or four times to discuss the agreement.
Kerry’s private meetings have sparked an outcry from congressional Republicans, who say he may have undermined U.S. foreign policy interests. On Sept. 18, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sent a letter asking the Justice Department to investigate the meetings, according to a press release.
Previously, PolitiFact found claims that Kerry met secretly with Iranian officials in Paris to be unsubstantiated. PolitiFact also gave several websites Pants on Fire ratings for false reports that Kerry was facing prison charges under the Logan Act, which prohibits unauthorized American citizens from working to subvert U.S. foreign policy.
But Padgett’s claim that Kerry has been "working on the behalf of foreign terrorist governments" seemed particularly sweeping, so we decided to give it a look.
When asked for comment, Padgett said he stands by his statement and suggested Kerry has been compromised and should be examined under the Logan Act or brought before the Senate for hearings.
"His efforts appear to represent the interests of the Iranian government more than American citizens right here on American soil," Padgett said. "He is part of the previous administration and he should stop trying to ink deals (in the) foreign interest as though he is still part of President Trump’s administration."
How normal is this?
Kerry spokesman Matthew Summers acknowledged that Kerry has maintained contact with his counterparts from other countries. But he explained that other secretaries of state did the same and that Kerry told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a phone conversation earlier this year about the discussions he had with Zarif at international conferences.
"At those conferences, (Kerry) urged Iran to keep its commitments under the Iran nuclear agreement," Summers said. "He was advocating for what was wholly consistent with U.S. policy at the time, as the United States was still a part of the Iran deal."
David Wade, Kerry’s former chief of staff, also pointed to an email newsletter from Diplomacy Works, a pro-diplomacy organization that includes Kerry on its advisory council, addressing the idea that Kerry’s meetings were secret and illegal.
Citing Kerry’s interviews with Hewitt and Fox News host Dana Perino, the email said his meetings with Zarif were routine and occured at a time when the Iran nuclear deal was still U.S. policy.
"There’s nothing unusual, let alone unseemly or inappropriate, about former diplomats meeting with foreign counterparts as Secretary Kissinger has done it for decades with Russia and China," Summers said. "But certainly anyone can agree it doesn’t constitute working ‘for’ another country."
We consulted some experts, and they agreed. "Of course Kerry did not work on behalf of Iran," said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University and a former National Security Council staff member, said there is "nothing unusual or untoward about formers continuing or extending relationships they fostered while in office."
"Former national security officials like John Kerry meet with foreign leaders all the time," he said.
Feaver said such meetings can be useful for relaying messages back to current policymakers, and that departed diplomats are usually very careful to emphasize that they are not advocating or creating policy.
Still, although Kerry’s meetings were fairly standard practice, Feaver noted that it’s not strange that they raised some eyebrows among Republicans.
"Based on published reporting, it is possible that former Secretary Kerry’s interactions danced close to the line — a line measuring professional norms, not legal restrictions — in terms of discussing ways to thwart current Administration policy," he said. "The Obama Administration would have been angry if former Bush Administration officials had crossed that line and so it is understandable that the Trump Administration is suspicious of Kerry’s activities."
"One can have a good debate about the Logan Act," O’Hanlon added, referring to the law prohibiting unauthorized citizens from working to undermine U.S. policy. Padgett said the government should look into Kerry’s meetings as a potential violation of that statute.
How does the Logan Act play into this?
But as PolitiFact has noted before, there are only two known instances where Americans have been indicted for violating the Logan Act. The most recent of the two indictments came in 1853, and neither led to a conviction.
Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, told the Boston Globe that the act probably would not apply to what Kerry has been up to, even if it was commonly enforced.
"If all Kerry is doing is working to keep in place something that’s still technically a ‘measure of the United States,’ I don’t see how the statute would apply even if someone was crazy enough to try it," Vladeck said, according to the Globe.
So Kerry may have come close to "a line measuring professional norms," as Feaver said. But his meetings are unlikely to warrant prosecution under the Logan Act, and they certainly did not amount to "working on the behalf of foreign terrorist governments."
For the record, Feaver also said the Iranian regime would more precisely be described as "major state sponsors of terrorism," not foreign terrorist governments.
Padgett said Kerry is "now working on the behalf of foreign terrorist governments."
Experts we consulted said that is not the case. Kerry’s meetings with Zarif were not unusual, and there is no clear evidence that his efforts to salvage the Iran deal were undermining current U.S. policy because the meetings occurred before Trump actually moved to scrap the deal, when the deal was still consistent with U.S. policy.
More to the point, there is no evidence that Kerry has been in cahoots with or working for Iran. We rate Padgett’s statement False.
This story was produced by the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, a partnership of McClatchy Carolinas, the Duke University Reporters’ Lab and PolitiFact. The NC Local News Lab Fund and the International Center for Journalists provide support for the project, which shares fact-checks with newsrooms statewide.