The Washington Post, whose pages include numerous articles supporting the idea that President Donald Trump or his advisors violated the Logan Act before his inauguration, once dismissed the law in an editorial as an irrelevant atavism when used to criticize the acts of prominent Democratic officeholders.
In 1984, ten members of Congress, including Majority Leader Jim Wright, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Edward Boland, and Representative Lee Hamilton, wrote Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega a fawning letter that praised his efforts to “open up the political process.”
The ten wrote, “As members of the U.S. House of Representatives we regret the fact that better relations do not exist between the United States and your country. We have been, and remain, opposed to U.S. support for military action directed against the people or government of Nicaragua.”
The Logan Act, passed in 1799, reads in part: “Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.”
The government has never successfully prosecuted anyone for violating this law. But in 1984, with the supporters of the president outraged over acts by members of Congress that they believed undermined his foreign policy, the obscure law became a hot topic.
Given the lack of freedom of speech and fair elections, and the ongoing killings and jailings of Ortega’s opponents, the letter greatly offended many Americans, including Congressman Newt Gingrich, who argued that the Constitution gives the president the authority to conduct foreign policy.
“Mr. Gingrich would prosecute under the Logan Act of 1799, which reserves the conduct of foreign affairs to the president,” the Post wrote in an editorial. “But wait a minute. Mr. Gingrich is proposing a legal remedy to what long practice has established as no more than a political offense. If every congressman or citizen who communicated with a foreign leader were to be indicted under the Logan Act, Mr. Gingrich himself might end up behind bars, and in very large company.”
The Reagan Administration’s Justice Department declined to prosecute. Edwin Meese, who became attorney general a year after the “Dear Commandante” letter, nevertheless reflected in his memoirs that “Wright’s over-reaching not only tampered with the constitutional balance of powers, it inhibited the ability of the President to conduct foreign policy, creating uncertainty among our personnel, our allies, and other nations in the region. And it led precisely to the sort of debacle our Founding Fathers had foreseen.”