Legal Questions as Trump Aide Had Five Phone Calls With Russian Ambassador on Day of Sanctions

Incoming National Security Adviser May Have Violated Logan Act

by Jason Ditz, January 13, 2017

Though it almost certainly isn’t going to lead to any legal repercussions, Lt. Gen Michael Flynn, the incoming National Security Adviser, has raised some eyebrows with media reports that he had five phone calls with the Russian Ambassador to the United States on the day President Obama announced a flurry of anti-Russia sanctions.

All five calls were reportedly between the time Russia heard about the sanctions, which included the expulsion of 35 diplomats, and the announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that no retaliatory action would be taken. The calls were believed to be reassurances by Flynn, as a key figure in the incoming administration, that the measures would be rolled back after the inauguration.

It may, however, also be a violation of the Logan Act, a 1799 act which forbids any private citizen of negotiating with a foreign government without explicit permission of the current government. Flynn presumably did not have such permission from the Obama Administration, though since he was already set to become part of the government less than a month later, assurances on the policies of that future government seem a gray area.

The Logan Act was initially passed by Congress after Dr. George Logan, a pacifist from Pennsylvania, went to France to advise the French government on ways to avoid a war with the United States, which many saw as increasingly likely at the time. Logan’s effort was successful, but anger among hawks at him getting in the way of a big US-France war led to an act that would criminalize future such efforts.

In practice, the Logan Act has been virtually completely disused, except as a rhetorical tool. Only a single indictment ever happened under the act, in 1803 against a Kentucky farmer who advocated secession of the western half of the then-US to ally with France. The farmer was never prosecuted, however, as the Louisiana Purchase effectively ended the question by absorbing the neighboring large French colonial territory into the US.

Last 5 posts by Jason Ditz