Jeff Sessions, The Logan Act, and the Chennault Affair
The revelations about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ discussions with Russian officials in 2016 signal that the Logan Act may once again be back in the news. This 1799 statute, written into the U.S. code during America’s “Quasi War” with France, recently played a bit part in the resignation of Michael Flynn as assistant to the president for national security affairs.
Although Flynn stepped down after news outlets revealed that he misled administration officials about his pre-inauguration contacts with representatives of the Russian government, it was the content of those contacts that sparked much of the ensuing controversy, and which spoke to the Logan Act’s provisions. The law bars U.S. citizens from negotiating with representatives of foreign governments for the purpose of influencing those governments in their relations with the United States, without having been granted the authority for doing so by the U.S. government. Although no Justice Department in American history has ever used it to prosecute an alleged lawbreaker, politicians and pundits have invoked its provisions to criticize behavior that seeks to thwart the policies of a sitting administration.
Most famously, the Logan Act colored discussions about the Chennault Affair, in which aides to Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon, during the course of the 1968 presidential campaign, sought to derail the opening of peace talks to end the Vietnam War—negotiations that the Lyndon B. Johnson White House was desperately trying to launch. We now know, thanks to research conducted by journalist and author John A. Farrell, that Nixon himself was involved in efforts to convince the South Vietnamese government—Washington’s nominal ally at the time—to stay away from the conference table, as the announcement of talks would likely have given the Democratic candidate and sitting vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey, an electoral boost.
Johnson knew about these contacts between Nixon aides and Saigon officials. Having become aware of them in the waning days of the election, he resolved to gather as much information as possible on the extent and substance of those communications. Through the resources of FBI, CIA, and NSA, Johnson gained a broad but incomplete picture of that extra-governmental diplomacy, and LBJ shared the thrust of his findings in telephone conversations with presidential aides and with legislators from both political parties; he also informed Nixon of his suspicions, who denied any involvement in such a scheme.
Johnson taped many of these conversations, transcripts of which have been created by the Miller Center as part of its work on the secret White House tapes, and which are accessible via the following links. They provide insight into Johnson’s calculations as he considered the impact of Nixon’s actions on the war in Vietnam, on the upcoming presidential election, and on the national interest. A thorough analysis of the Chennault Affair, as well as on the subsequent role it may have played in the Watergate scandal, is available from Miller Center scholar Ken Hughes, who explores its origins and afterlife in his groundbreaking Chasing Shadows: The Chennault Affair, the Nixon Tapes, and the Origins of Watergate (University of Virginia Press, 2014).
1. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Russell, 30 October 1968:
"We have found that our friend, the Republican nominee, our California friend, has been playing on the outskirts with our enemies and our friends both, our allies and the others."
2. Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen, 31 October 1968:
"The net of it, and it's despicable, and if it were made public I think it would rock the nation, but the net of it was that if they just hold out a little bit longer, that he's a lot more sympathetic and he can kind of—they can do better business with him than they can with their present president."
3. Lyndon Johnson and James Rowe, 1 November 1968:
"This is the most explosive thing you've ever touched in your life."
4. Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen, 2 November 1968
"And they oughtn’t to be doing this. This is treason."
5. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, 3 November 1968
"I just wanted you to know that I feel very, very strongly about this, and any rumblings around about [scoffing] somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon's government's attitude there certainly have no—absolutely no credibility as far as I'm concerned."
6. Lyndon Johnson, Clark Clifford, Jim Jones, Walt Rostow, and Dean Rusk, 4 November 1968
"Well, Mr. President, I have a very definite view on this, for what it's worth. I do not believe that any president can make any use of interceptions or telephone taps in any way that would involve politics. The moment we cross over that divide, we're in a different kind of society."