Controversy continues to rage over an open-letter by Republicans to Iran that threatens to undermine nuclear negotiations between Iran and the United States, Russia and China.
The letter was signed by the entire party leadership in the chamber and by potential presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and threatens that Republicans can undo any agreements put into place as a result of those negotiations.
It is one thing to attempt to undermine a sitting president using the legislative process, but quite a different matter when U.S. Senators reach out to a foreign power deliberately to disrupt ongoing negotiations.
The only direct precedent I can think of for this occurred in 1968, when as a presidential candidate Richard Nixon secretly communicated with the government of South Vietnam in an attempt to scuttle peace negotiations the Johnson administration was engaged in.
In 1968, the Paris Peace talks, intended to put an end to the 13-year-long Vietnam War, failed because an aide working for then-Presidential candidate Richard Nixon convinced the South Vietnamese to walk away from the dealings, says a new report by the BBC’s David Taylor. By the late 1960s Americans had been involved in the Vietnam War for nearly a decade, and the ongoing conflict was an incredibly contentious issue, says PBS.
Nixon was campaigning for president in ’68 on a platform that opposed the war and needed the war to continue. As BBC reports,
Nixon feared a breakthrough at the Paris Peace talks designed to find a negotiated settlement to the Vietnam war, and he knew this would derail his campaign. […] In late October 1968 there were major concessions from Hanoi which promised to allow meaningful talks to get underway in Paris – concessions that would justify Johnson calling for a complete bombing halt of North Vietnam. This was exactly what Nixon feared.
Nixon went on to win the election by a narrow margin, and as BBC reports:
Once in office he escalated the war into Laos and Cambodia, with the loss of an additional 22,000 American lives – quite apart from the lives of the Laotians, Cambodians and Vietnamese caught up in the new offensives – before finally settling for a peace agreement in 1973 that was within grasp in 1968.
The Washington Post noted in their article today that
Many people are convinced that what Nixon did was an act of treason; at the very least it was a clear violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits American citizens from communicating with foreign governments to conduct their own foreign policy.
This move by Republicans is not quite at that level. As Dan Drezner wrote, “I don’t think an open letter from members of the legislative branch quite rises to Logan Act violations, but if there’s ever a trolling amendment to the Logan Act, this would qualify,” and at least it’s out in the open. But it makes clear that they believe that when they disagree with an administration policy, they can act as though Barack Obama isn’t even the president of the United States.
Agree or disagree with the underlying issues, there is no precedent for members of the Senate to reach out to a foreign power to subvert current negotiations by the President of the United States.