White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest spent over 8 minutes dodging questions Monday on whether the $400 million that the Obama administration airlifted to Iran, which was contingent on Tehran releasing American hostages, was "ransom" or "leverage."
"Earlier you kind of suggested that we weren’t asking precise enough questions seven months ago on Iran and that’s why some of the lack of clarity," a reporter said during the White House daily press briefing. "For the sake of clarity, could you describe for me and for the record the White House’s understanding and the delineation between leverage and ransom?"
Earnest never addressed the difference between leverage and ransom, instead discussing for about two minutes how the press could do a better job focusing on details that he highlighted, so that people could better appraise the benefits of the diplomatic negotiations.
"I’ll concede it was all very complex, but my simple question is: what’s the difference between a ransom and leverage?" the reporter asked again.
Earnest responded by talking about the three different negotiations that the United States had with Iran simultaneously and how the American detainees were released in exchange for Iranian prisoners in the U.S.
"The timing of the $400 million was the leverage," the reporter said.
Earnest said the $400 million payment was a separate settlement from the prisoner swap.
"Where does the timing in the leverage come in? The State Department has used the word ‘leverage.’ The president has used the word ‘ransom,’ and I’m just trying to square them," the reporter said.
Earnest continued to dodge the reporter’s question about the difference between leverage and ransom by talking about how the U.S. expected the Iranians to be able navigate the complexities of the negotiations.
"Let me ask another simple question. Is there a difference between a ransom and a leverage?" the reporter asked.
Earnest responded that he quibbled with the question, but the reporter interjected and criticized Earnest’s attempts to dodge his question.
"We’ve been sort of dinged for not asking precise questions, and we’re trying to ask them and then we don’t get direct answers," the reporter said. "The president said no ransoms. The State Department has said leverage was paid, so how do we bring those two together? If there is no distinction, there is no distinction. But we are giving you a chance right now to say if there a distinction right between ransom and leverage, and you are quibbling with the question, which seems like a pretty basic question."
Earnest apologized to the reporter and said that he was not trying to ding the press corp. He then addressed the definition of "ransom," which he does not believe occurred in the money payment to the Iranian regime
"The notion of a ransom is often perceived as paying money in exchange for the release of unjustly detained individuals. That’s not what occurred here," Earnest said. "What occurred here was a mutual prisoner release. Iran released four American citizens who were being unjustly detained in Iran and we brought them home. The United States released seven individuals who had been convicted of crimes who were being held here in the United States."
A reporter then asked Earnest to define "leverage" since he just talked about ransom. Earnest responded by saying that he did not use the term. The reporter then asked Earnest if he was "proud" that leverage was used to describe the agreement since Earnest had previously said he was proud of the deal.
Earnest continued to disavow the term "leverage" throughout the remainder of the exchange and said that he was proud of the agreement because four unjustly detained American citizens were brought home safely.
State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters last week that the money given to Iran was used as "leverage" to ensure that the plane carrying the U.S. prisoners could leave Iran to come back to the United States.