President Obama pushed back Thursday against charges by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and others that $400 million in cash sent to Iran as part of the nuclear deal was actually ransom money for hostages.
"We do not pay ransom for hostages," Obama said at his first, and probably last, full-blown news conference from the Pentagon. "We announced these payments in January, many months ago. They weren't a secret. This wasn't some nefarious deal."
The payment was made on Jan. 17, a day after four imprisoned Americans were freed by Iran and the United Nations lifted sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear weapons programs.
The State Department has said that the money was an award from an international tribunal in the Hague to settle a decades-old legal dispute, and the release of the hostages at the same time was coincidental.
The "only bit of news" in the payment to Iran is that it was made in cash, Obama said. The U.S. sent the cash in the currencies of other countries since there were no financial arrangements with Iran and "we couldn't send them a check" or wire the money, Obama said.
In a campaign stop in Maine, Trump repeated his charge that the money was ransom. "You see it, you don't believe it," Trump said. "I wonder where that money really goes, by the way."
Obama spoke after closed meetings at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the White House national security team to review the progress of the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and chart the way forward to ensuring its defeat.
At the top of the agenda was the new campaign against ISIS in Libya, where the U.S. began airstrikes this week in support of the Government of National Accord based in Tripoli.
Obama was accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco and others.
The Pentagon briefing room stage offered Obama a setting to offset the drumbeat of charges from Trump that the Obama presidency has been a "disaster" for the military that has left the services unprepared to stop the spread of ISIS and its threat to the U.S. homeland.
Obama said ISIS has steadily been beaten back in Iraq and Syria by a combination of thousands of U.S. airstrikes and improvements in the capabilities of partnered local forces, but he echoed warnings from CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director James Comey that ISIS would remain a significant threat because of its ability to direct or inspire terror worldwide.
"Their military defeat will not be enough" to end the terror threat from ISIS, he said.
In addition, "groups like ISIL will keep emerging," Obama said, using another acronym for ISIS, and their emergence will haunt the presidency of his successor.
On the ISIS campaign, Obama said the U.S. had "momentum" on its side in Iraq and Syria.
In Iraq, thousands of U.S. and coalition airstrikes have enabled the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to regain much of the ground lost to ISIS and to focus on eliminating the last major ISIS stronghold in the northwestern city of Mosul, he said.
In Syria, the situation on the ground was much more mixed in the fifth year of a civil war that has left more than 300,000 dead and displaced millions. Secretary of State John Kerry has been negotiating with Russia on a deal to coordinate airstrikes, even as the U.S. continues to press for the ouster of Russia's ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
At the news conference, Obama challenged Russia to "show it is serious" about ending the violence in Syria.
"The United States remains prepared to work with Russia," he said. "But so far, Russia has failed to take the necessary steps. I'm not confident that we can trust the Russians or [Russian President] Vladimir Putin."
Despite declaring Trump "unfit" to be the next commander in chief, Obama said that he would continue to provide required intelligence briefings to Trump as well as to Hillary Clinton, as is traditional for the nominees of major parties.
"As far as Mr. Trump is concerned, we are going to go by the law," Obama said of the security briefings. "If somebody's the nominee, they need to get security briefings so that, if they win, they are not starting from scratch. They [the two nominees] have been told these are classified briefings. And if they want to be president, they've got to start acting like a president."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.