The documents outlining Michael Flynn’s guilty plea in the Trump-Russia investigation do not allege collusion or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election. They do, however, suggest that the Obama Justice Department was intensely interested in Flynn’s discussions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak about policy issues — sanctions against Russia, a United Nations resolution on Israel — during the presidential transition, when Barack Obama was still in the White House and Donald Trump was preparing to take office.
At the time, top Justice officials suspected Flynn of violating the Logan Act, the 218-year-old law under which no one has ever been prosecuted, that prohibits private citizens from acting on behalf of the United States in disputes with foreign governments. Starting in the summer of 2016 and intensifying in the transition period, the Logan Act, while mostly unknown to the general public, became a hot topic of conversation among some Democrats. A number of lawmakers, former officials, and commentators called on the Obama administration to investigate the Trump team for a possible Logan Act violations — and to do it while Democrats still controlled the executive branch.
At the same time, inside the Obama Justice Department, it appears the Logan Act became a paramount concern among some key officials in the critical weeks of December 2016 and January 2017. Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates has told Congress that the Logan Act was the first reason she intervened in the Flynn case — the reason FBI agents were sent to the White House to interview Flynn in the Trump administration’s early days. It was that interview, held on Jan. 24, 2017, that ultimately led to Flynn’s guilty plea.
In short, there’s no doubt the Logan Act, a law dismissed as a joke or an archaic irrelevancy or simply unconstitutional by many legal experts, played a central role in the Obama administration’s aggressive and enormously consequential investigation of its successor.
Democrats began accusing Trump of Logan Act violations in the summer of 2016, immediately after the Republican convention, when Trump sarcastically invited Russia to produce the 30,000-plus emails that Hillary Clinton deleted rather than turn over to investigators. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said during a July 27 news conference. “I think that you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press — let’s see if that happens, that’ll be nice.”
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