After The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway reported that Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right-wing media seized on the opportunity to call Democrats hypocrites and baselessly allege that the meeting was a violation of the Logan Act. President Donald Trump repeated the same allegation to the press a day later.
Trump has a history of promoting conspiracy theories and baseless allegations after he sees them amplified by right-wing media outlets. In this instance, right-wing media figures and the president are accusing Murphy of violating the Logan Act, “a 1799 law that prohibits ordinary citizens from negotiating with foreign powers.” According to University of Texas School of Law professor Steve Vladeck, the law, which has never been used to successfully prosecute any American citizen, “only applies to conduct that is designed to ‘defeat the measures of the United States’ or influence the conduct of foreign governments.”
Although there is no evidence that Murphy did either of those things in his meeting with Zarif, Trump accused the senator of violating U.S. law (an allegation he also previously made against former Secretary of State John Kerry). Trump’s allegation against Murphy came after right-wing outlets and social media accounts quickly amplified the report that The Federalist had originally published, using it to call Democrats hypocritical and to inaccurately compare Murphy to former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. (Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.) Claiming that Democrats are hypocrites is a bad-faith argument that right-wing media personalities are using to create faux outrage, a common tactic of theirs.
Here is how the allegation against Murphy spread across right-wing media and was repeated by Trump on February 18:
Mollie Hemingway reports that Democratic senators met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
On February 17, Hemingway, the Federalist’s senior editor, published an article that claimed a “source briefed by the French delegation” to the Munich Security Conference said that Murphy and other Democratic senators met with Zarif during the conference last week. The article went on to baselessly allege that “such a meeting would mean Murphy had done the type of secret coordination with foreign leaders to potentially undermine the U.S. government.”
Hemingway also alleged that the State Department “was not aware of any side meetings with Iranian officials that Murphy was engaged in.” CNN and a Politico reporter debunked this allegation, saying that Murphy’s office actually did notify the State Department before the meeting with Zarif.
Right-wing media outlets and social media accounts amplify Hemingway’s report and start making egregious claims
Pro-Trump social media spread Hemingway’s article, including Facebook pages Patriot Movement AZ, Nashville Tea Party, and Make America Great Again, and Twitter accounts of Hudson Institute’s Rebeccah Heinrichs and The Federalist’s Sean Davis. Some right-wing media outlets, such as the The Daily Wire, CNS News, The Gateway Pundit, and Southern Patriot News, also reported on it.
On Twitter, right-wing accounts started making egregious claims:
- Turning Point USA President Charlie Kirk
- Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Doran
- Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e-Khalq’s propaganda persona Heshmat Alvi
- Conservative radio talker and Fox News host Mark Levin
- Townhall’s Kurt Schlichter
Pompeo: “If they met, I don’t know what they said. I hope they were reinforcing America’s foreign policy, not their own.”
During a press availability on February 18, Voice of America’s Cindy Spang asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo if he could confirm that a group of Democratic senators met with Zarif. Pompeo said that he has “seen that piece” and that “if they met, I don’t know what they said. I hope they were reinforcing America’s foreign policy, not their own.”
Following Pompeo’s response, right-wing media outlets, including Townhall, The Washington Free Beacon, and The Federalist, reported on his comments, spurring additional reactions from right-wing social media accounts.
Murphy confirms that he met with Zarif
As is his general practice, Murphy discussed his overseas trip in a “behind the scenes” Medium post on February 18, part of which he turned into a Twitter thread as well. According to Murphy, he and Republican Sens. Ron Johnson (WI) and John Barrasso (WY) met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, Ukraine, and they then met up with the rest of the bipartisan congressional delegation at the Munich Security Conference, which included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), other House members, and over a dozen senators. Murphy wrote that he met with Zarif during the conference to discuss Yemen, “to gauge whether he thinks the reprisals for the Soleimani assassination are over,” and to “raise the issue of American prisoners held in Iran.”
Right-wing Twitter personalities inaccurately call the meeting a violation of the Logan Act
In response to Murphy’s comments, right-wing outlets accused him of “stonewalling,” “secretly meeting” with Iran, and being “a massive hypocrite.” TheBlaze even claimed, “None of this would be a problem had Murphy been more forthright about the meeting and his motivations for holding it before it took place.”
On social media, right-wing figures accused Murphy of violating the Logan Act, with Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton suggesting he committed treason. The phrase was even trending on Twitter at one point. Here are some examples:
- Turning Point USA President Charlie Kirk
- Far-right Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich
- Radio host Sebastian Gorka
- Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton
- Right-wing personality Kambree Kawahine Koa
- Donald Trump Jr.
- Fox News contributor Dan Bongino
- The Federalist’s Sean Davis
Trump: “Sounds like to me a violation of the Logan Act”
As the story spread on social media, Trump quickly weighed in while speaking with the press on February 18.
Even Fox News admits that “it would be a bit of a stretch to say he violated the Logan Act” before changing its tune
Right-wing media outlets such as Hot Air, The Washington Times, and Fox News covered Trump’s comments. Fox News aired Trump speaking with the press on January 18 and, in response, Fox News chief White House correspondent John Roberts said, “It would be a bit of a stretch to say that he violated the Logan Act.”
However, Fox changed its tune later:
- Fox Business host Lou Dobbs said Murphy is “an abject fool,” “nothing more than a self-important hack,” and “knows how to be played.”
- On Fox News @ Night, Hemingway said, “While it's true that [the Logan Act] is rarely used, it was famously used against Trump affiliates to really gin up that entire Russia collusion hoax. But now Chris Murphy seems to have a different view when it comes to his own coordination with the Iranian foreign minister.
- Fox also hosted Hemingway on Fox & Friends the next morning, when she said, “Just a few years ago, when Mike Flynn, as an incoming member of the Trump administration, had a conversation with his Russian counterpart, Chris Murphy thought that this was treasonous, illegal. … But now, when Chris Murphy is having secret meetings in the hotel rooms of Iranian leaders, … now he thinks that’s perfectly fine.”
Trump amplified the allegation on Twitter
Trump continued to attack Murphy on February 19, repeating the false allegation in a post on Twitter that also raised his old accusations against Kerry and retweeting Sean Davis’ tweet about it.
Trump attacked both Kerry and Murphy again on February 20 on Twitter, claiming that they “grossly violated the Logan Act.”
The short timeline between The Federalist’s publication of its report and Trump's amplification of the baseless allegation is emblematic of how quickly disinformation spreads across the right-wing media ecosystem, gets amplified by Fox, and influences the president. It's a tactic that has successfully exploited the Fox-Trump feedback loop and led to the president issuing pardons and making policy decisions.