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What are the limits on the ability of the President of the United States to secretly contact powerful representatives of other nations (for example, another nation's head of state, or that nation's ambassador to the US)? Specifically:

  • Can the POTUS make such contacts and keep the conversation contents a secret? (I.e. is there any legal mechanism that could compel the POTUS to disclose the content of such conversations to even one other person?)
  • Can the POTUS make such contacts in complete secrecy (i.e. not just avoid disclosing the contents of the conversation, but avoid disclosing even the fact that any conversation took place?)
  • If there are no legal limitations on the above, is it practically possible for the POTUS to have such secret contacts?
  • Do the answers above depend on whether the other nation involved is hostile to the US?
  • #2 is practically impossible, given Secret Service tracking President's 100% of life. – user4012 Apr 13 '17 at 11:36
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    @user4012 I think that depends on your definition of complete secrecy. If everyone in attendance doesnt talk about it, its a complete secret. The Secret Service isn't known for talking about what the president did. – Reinstate Monica Apr 13 '17 at 11:53
  • The answer to your question though is broadly yes. Look up how the Iran deal was started. It was basically secret negotiations between the US and Iran at first. – Reinstate Monica Apr 13 '17 at 11:54
  • I understand there are a number of common phone apps made with the goal of letting any two people talk without anyone else being able to observe it. – user9389 Apr 13 '17 at 16:57
  • Hostility between two nations does matter. The US president can't talk directly to anybody in North Korea and be confident that North Korea itself won't publicize or use that in some way. That's why heads of state don't talk to each other without some preparation (and this very much include the Iran deal). Also, heads of state, especially from powerful nations like the US, generally speak only to other heads of state. They don't call a foreign minister or some such, that's not how it works. Instead they leave that to their own aides or ministers. That makes the question mostly hypothetical. – Relaxed Apr 13 '17 at 17:42
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  1. Generally speaking, there's no way to force disclosure of a private conversation the President had. While there are limits to it, Executive privilege covers internal conversations the President and his advisors have, which would extend to diplomatic channels.
  2. It's debatable that contacts happen in complete secrecy. It's well known that other countries routinely spy on each other (i.e. the NSA tapping of Angela Merkel's phone). While the President enjoys the best security available, that may not be true on the other end. Per #1, however, it would be difficult to force disclosure of any such contacts in an investigation.
  3. The President is invested with the power to contact and negotiate with other countries. So, by definition, such contacts are not only legal, they are implicitly expected.

    The diplomatic powers of the president of the United States include the right to make treaties and executive agreements with other nations and the right of reception, which is the right to recognize or not recognize the legitimacy of governments in other countries.

  4. Hostilities don't matter as much. The US doesn't, for instance, have normalized diplomatic relations with Iran, North Korea, etc. But, as the Iran Nuclear Deal proved, the US can still contact people diplomatically, through a common contact (i.e. the US deals indirectly with North Korea by going through Swedish channels)

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