WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has never been a big fan of former Secretary of State John Kerry, accusing him of cluelessly negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and surrendering American competitiveness in sealing the Paris climate change accord.
Now, even though Trump has withdrawn from Kerry's signature achievements as top U.S. diplomat, the president is cranking up his criticism, accusing the ex-senator from Massachusetts of breaking the law.
Republican lawmakers are also taking aim at Kerry for his candid revelation that since leaving office he has met several times with Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister who was his main interlocutor in the Iran deal negotiations.
Such meetings, between a private U.S. citizen and foreign official, are not against the law and not necessarily inappropriate or a violation of federal regulations, but Trump and the GOP say they are evidence Kerry is trying to subvert the administration's hard line on Iran.
'John Kerry had illegal meetings with the very hostile Iranian Regime, which can only serve to undercut our great work to the detriment of the American people,' Trump tweeted late Thursday. 'He told them to wait out the Trump Administration! Was he registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act? BAD!'
The law Trump invoked — the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA — requires registration and transparency by people or companies acting on behalf of foreign governments, political parties or individuals.
But Josh Rosenstein, a partner with the Washington law firm Sandler Reiff and a specialist in lobbying compliance, said there are too many unanswered questions to know whether the law applies to Kerry's interactions with Zarif. FARA's provisions don't extend to activities conducted entirely overseas, so where Kerry interacted with him matters. Also unclear is whether any Iranians specifically asked Kerry for advice.
'The devil's always in the details,' Rosenstein said. 'Simply offering advice to a foreign government doesn't make you a foreign agent.'
When reports of Kerry's ex-officio contacts with Zarif first surfaced in May, Trump tweeted similar thoughts. 'John Kerry can't get over the fact that he had his chance and blew it! Stay away from negotiations John, you are hurting your country!' he said on May 8. A day earlier, he tweeted: 'The United States does not need John Kerry's possibly illegal Shadow Diplomacy on the very badly negotiated Iran Deal. He was the one that created this MESS in the first place!'
Kerry, who is currently promoting his new book 'Every Day is Extra,' had no immediate response Friday to Trump's latest Twitter broadside. In the past he's been harshly critical of the president and his decision in May to withdraw from the 2015 agreement between Iran and several world powers that lifted sanctions against Tehran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.
The State Department took an annoyed but relatively muted tone when asked about Kerry telling conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday that the earlier reports of his meetings with Zarif were correct: They had met three or four times since Kerry left office, but not since the current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took the job in April. One of those meetings took place in Norway and another in Germany. A third is reported to have occurred at the United Nations headquarters, which is not technically on U.S. soil.
'I've seen him (Kerry) brag about the meetings that he has had with the Iranian government and Iranian government officials,' department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters. 'And I've also seen reports that he is apparently providing, according to reports, advice to the Iranian Government. I think probably the best advice that he should be giving the Iranian Government is stop supporting terror groups around the world, stop supporting Hezbollah.'
'If anything, he should be calling on the Iranian Government to stop spending money on all this adventurism and terrorism around the world and start spending their money on their own people,' she said.
One senior State Department official, Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Manish Singh, went further, however, telling a congressional panel on Thursday that it would be 'very inappropriate' if Kerry was conducting 'shadow diplomacy' to try to undermine the administration.
Kerry himself told Hewitt that he was not coaching the Iranians on how to deal with the Trump administration.
'That's not my job, and my coaching him would not, you know, that's not how it works,' he said in the interview. 'What I have done is tried to elicit from him (Zarif) what Iran might be willing to do in order to change the dynamic in the Middle East for the better.'
Richard Lardner contributed to this report.