Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his predecessor John Kerry clashed Friday over the latter’s private meetings with Iranian officials, a remarkable war of words that had both sides accusing the other of dishonesty.
Pompeo alleged that, by holding “beyond inappropriate” meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Kerry was undermining U.S. foreign policy in an “unprecedented” manner. The secretary’s comments came after President Donald Trump asserted in a tweet that Kerry’s meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif were “illegal.”
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Kerry and his aides dismissed such allegations as utter bunk, pointing out that Kerry had briefed Pompeo and the State Department about his discussions with Zarif. Kerry twisted the knife even more on Twitter by raising Trump’s legal woes, saying the president should “be more worried about Paul Manafort meeting with Robert Mueller than me meeting with Iran’s [foreign minister].”
It was an ugly and astonishing exchange for two men who have held the title of chief U.S. diplomat, a role that traditionally is supposed to stay above partisan fray. But it was just another indication of the unusually bitter relationship between the members of the Barack Obama administration and the Trump team. Obama aides are particularly upset with Trump for abandoning the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, a signature accomplishment for Kerry that numerous Obama staffers helped craft.
As part of the agreement, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear weapons in exchange for economic sanctions relief. Trump later pulled the U.S. out of the deal, arguing it did not do enough to change Iran’s behavior in other areas, such as financing terrorist groups. The other global powers that also signed on to the pact have since struggled to keep the deal in place.
“What Secretary Kerry has done is unseemly and unprecedented,” Pompeo said Friday in a short news conference at the State Department. “This is a former secretary of state engaged with the largest state sponsor of terror.”
He added: “You can’t find precedent for this in U.S. history. And Secretary Kerry ought not to engage in that kind of behavior.”
In response, Matthew Summers, a spokesman for Kerry, said the former State Department chief “stays in touch with his former counterparts around the world just like every previous secretary of state, and in a long phone conversation with Secretary Pompeo earlier this year he went into great detail about what he had learned about the Iranian’s view.”
He added: “No secrets were kept from this administration.”
Kerry’s meetings with Zarif were first reported by The Boston Globe in May, earning a flurry of attention at the time. But they recently came back into the public spotlight — and attracted Trump’s attention — because Kerry has been giving interviews to promote his new book, “Every Day is Extra.”
Kerry told radio host Hugh Hewitt this week that he’d met with Zarif “three or four times” since leaving Foggy Bottom.
He acknowledged that the Iran nuclear deal was among the topics discussed. Kerry also indicated that he and Zarif have talked about other U.S. concerns regarding Iran’s behavior in the Middle East.
“What I have done is tried to elicit from him what Iran might be willing to do in order to change the dynamic in the Middle East for the better,” Kerry said.
In an interview this week with Fox News, Kerry implied that he’s encouraged the Iranian government to wait out Trump until there is a Democratic president again.
“I think everybody in the world is talking about waiting out President Trump,” Kerry said.
Those comments, in particular, appeared to gall Trump, who tweeted Thursday: “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. He told them to wait out the Trump Administration! Was he registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act? BAD!”
Pompeo declined to say Friday if the Kerry-Zarif meetings are illegal. Legal experts have cast doubt on the possibility that Kerry could be held liable, though they note it could depend on the specifics of the meetings.
But Kerry and his supporters insist it is common practice for former U.S. officials to meet with counterparts, including in venues such as international conferences.
“There’s nothing unusual, let alone unseemly or inappropriate, about former diplomats meeting with foreign counterparts. [Former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger has done it for decades with Russia and China,” Summers said. “What is unseemly and unprecedented is for the podium of the State Department to be hijacked for political theatrics.”
Summers also noted that at the time of the Kerry-Zarif meetings, the U.S. policy was to remain in the Iran deal. Kerry has not held any meetings with Zarif since Trump decided to exit the agreement in May.
Another top Obama national security aide, Ned Price, issued a statement that indicated Kerry had kept the State Department aware of his meetings with Zarif before Pompeo got to Foggy Bottom, when Rex Tillerson was secretary of state.
“Pompeo’s State Department was briefed on these discussions, which are commonplace among former diplomats, both before and after the fact,” Price said.
Obama aides also noted that Pompeo didn’t complain when GOP Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas wrote to Iran’s supreme leader in 2015, at the height of the nuclear negotiations, urging him not to make a deal with the Obama administration. Republican House Speaker John Boehner also invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to denounce the Iran deal before a joint session of Congress while Obama was still president.
Pompeo, who earned a reputation as deeply partisan Republican while serving as a congressman from Kansas, is close to Trump and takes pains to avoid contradicting the president in public. He made no reference to Kerry having discussed the Zarif encounters with him via phone earlier this year.
Pompeo complained about seeing Kerry and two other top Obama administration officials — a group he dubbed “the troika” — at a major security conference in Munich, Germany. He said that to the best of his recollection, the other two Obama aides were former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and former Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, both of whom worked closely with Zarif and Kerry on the Iran nuclear deal.
“I am reasonably confident,” Pompeo said, “that [Kerry] was not there in support of U.S. policy with respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran,” which the U.S. has blamed for recent rocket fire around U.S. diplomatic facilities in Iraq.
Moniz could not be reached Friday. But a source familiar with the issue said the three — Moniz, Kerry and Sherman — did not team up to engage their former Iranian counterparts at the same time.
Sherman told POLITICO that she “made it a practice” to give her successor at the State Department, Tom Shannon, “a heads up and to debrief him afterward” about her meetings with Iranian officials. She also describes her meeting with Zarif in her new book, “Not for the Faint of Heart.”
Pompeo’s news conference Friday was unusual in part because the notice of it did not specify the topic. But his comments about Kerry came in response to one of the few questions he took from reporters. Pompeo also used the event to pledge the safeguard U.S. elections against interference from Russia and other actors and praise U.S. diplomats in the field.
The events are unfolding against the backdrop of growing legal alarm for Trump, whose 2016 campaign is being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller for potential coordination with Russia on its attempts to interfere with the 2016 election. On Friday, Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort agreed to cooperate with Mueller under a plea agreement.
Trump denies any wrongdoing, and is very sensitive to claims his campaign colluded with Moscow. He frequently uses Twitter to decry the Mueller probe as a “witch hunt.”
But it was Kerry on Friday who used Trump’s favorite tool to needle the president, retweeting Trump’s accusations about “illegal” meetings with the snide comment about Manafort and Mueller.
Kerry also advised Trump: “If you want to learn something about the nuclear agreement that made the world safer, buy my new book, Every Day Is Extra,” along with an Amazon link.
Kerry then sent a second tweet: “PS – I recorded the audio version, not Omarosa.”