An e-mail in WikiLeaks’ Podesta database shows a former State Department official with close ties to Hillary Clinton met with an ambassador to China early in 2016 and attempted to facilitate a secret “off the record” meeting between Clinton and the ambassador to discuss U.S.-China relations.
The revelation comes as many in the liberal press are attempting to use the 18th-century Logan Act as evidence of then-President-elect Trump’s potentially illegal communications with the Russian government.
Their argument goes something like this: Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, was allegedly in communication with Russian officials to discuss sanctions passed by the Obama administration prior to Trump’s inauguration. If Trump had directed Flynn to engage in conversations over official state business prior to taking office, he and Flynn violated the Logan Act, because they never sought permission from the Obama administration to do so. If Flynn had engaged in these conversations on his own, he would still be guilty of violating the Logan Act, but Trump would escape liability.
There are numerous problems with these claims, which have recently been advanced by influential news outlets such as The New York Times and Washington Post. For starters, no one has ever been convicted under the Logan Act in its 200-year history, and according to Mark Hemingway at The Weekly Standard, “the only man charged under the law was a Kentucky farmer who wrote a newspaper article in 1803 about American territories allying with France—and even he was never prosecuted.”
Critics of Trump and Flynn say even if the outdated Logan Act can’t be used to bring forth a prosecution, Flynn’s actions deserve condemnation. They argue we can’t have “private citizens”—a dubious claim considering the Trump administration was just weeks away from taking over—negotiating deals without the approval of the sitting administration.
Unfortunately for those on the left making these assertions, evidence in WikiLeaks’ John Podesta e-mails show Hillary Clinton may also have engaged in similar actions as those committed by Flynn. In a January 2016 e-mail sent to Podesta and several high-level Clinton staffers, Kurt Campbell, the former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (from 2009 to 2013), told the Clinton team he had a private meeting with a Chinese ambassador who wanted to have “an informal, private, off the record get together with a few of us to discuss the next year and the current state of US-China affairs.”
Clinton staffer Jake Sullivan responded by saying he had “three or four other things to discuss with you. Can we do a calltomorrow or Monday?” On the same e-mail chain, Podesta would later agree to reach out to Campbell to discuss the matter.
If Clinton did meet with the Chinese ambassador, as Campbell suggested, her meeting also violated the Logan Act, assuming such a claim could be made against Flynn. Regardless of whether the Logan Act should apply (I don’t think it should), her staff’s attempts to set up the meeting is even more troubling than anything Flynn allegedly did, because Clinton’s team attempted to put this meeting together (and may have succeeded) prior to the 2016 election. Whatever faults can be reasonably claimed against Flynn for speaking to Russian officials, it’s clear he was acting in anticipation of becoming President Trump’s national security advisor just a few short weeks later.
It’s also notable this isn’t the only time Campbell had engaged in important foreign policy matters without holding a government post. In another e-mail in WikiLeaks’ database, Hillary Clinton wrote to Podesta to ask about Campbell’s attempts to negotiate behind the scenes with the “Chinese side” prior to an important summit between Obama and the Chinese government. In the e-mail, sent October 22, 2014, Clinton wrote, “I’ve heard that the NSC team (Evan, et al) is working to include wildlife protection in the agenda. Kurt Campbell has also been working the Chinese side and believes they will agree if US/POTUS side makes it a clear priority.”
Campbell, who had already left his post in the State Department, appears again to have potentially been in violation of the Logan Act.
It’s entirely possible, of course, Campbell had been asked and authorized by the Obama administration to engage in these talks, but I couldn’t find a single record in 2014 indicating Obama had done so. In fact, in a detailed article about the summit by David Ignatius in The Washington Post in November 2014, many individuals who engaged in negotiations leading up to the talks are mentioned, but Campbell, who is cited and quoted in the story, is not one of them. He’s instead labeled a “consultant.”
Whether Campbell was engaging in talks with foreign officials without permission from President Obama cannot be known without a much more detailed investigation, but it’s clear from these examples (and there are probably many more) that the sort of discussions had by Flynn were not nearly as irregular as so many seem to suggest.
How likely is it Clinton (and/or her staff and allies) and Campbell will now face the same media outrage experienced by Flynn and Trump over similar accusations? Not very, which is precisely why so few Americans trust the media when it constantly rails against the Trump administration.