Spinning Obama’s reference to Islamic State as a ‘JV’ team

During an Aug. 25 briefing, White House spokesman Josh Earnest was asked if President Obama underestimated the Islamic State when he appeared to make a previous comparison between the group and a junior varsity basketball squad. (WhiteHouse.gov)

 

Question: “Did the president underestimate ISIS [the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] when he referred to them in an interview only a couple months ago as a JV squad and making a reference to National Basketball Association basketball teams like the Lakers?”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest: “I thought somebody might ask this question today so I wanted to pull the transcript of the interview because it’s important to understand the context in which this was delivered. So let me just read the full quote and then we can talk about it:

“‘I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.’

“So the president was not singling out ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, another name for the group], he was talking about the very different threat that is posed by a range of extremists around the globe. Many of them do not have designs on attacking the West or attacking the United States, and that is what puts them in stark contrast to the goals and capability of the previously existing al-Qaeda core network that was led by Osama bin Laden.”

exchange at White House news briefing, Aug. 25, 2014

Several readers asked us to examine this claim from White House spokesman Josh Earnest that President Obama was not singling out the group that now calls itself as Islamic State when, during in an interview with the New Yorker that appeared last January, he appeared to dismiss it as a “JV squad.” Since then, the group has taken over vast segments of Iraqi territory, declared itself a state and has posted videos that appear to show the beheadings of two American journalists.

The Facts

The New Yorker article, written by David Remnick, appeared in the Jan. 27, 2014, issue. It was clearly based on a series of interviews with the president, over a period of months, but the interview in question took place in the Oval Office on Jan. 7, according to the previously unreleased transcript obtained by The Fact Checker.

The date is important because just four days before, newspapers reported that the Islamic State had captured and raised its flag over Fallujah, where Marines in 2004 had fought one of the bloodiest battles of the U.S. invasion. As Liz Sly of The Washington Post reported:

A rejuvenated al-Qaeda-affiliated force asserted control over the western Iraqi city of Fallujah on Friday, raising its flag over government buildings and declaring an Islamic state in one of the most crucial areas that U.S. troops fought to pacify before withdrawing from Iraq two years ago….

The upheaval also affirmed the soaring capabilities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the rebranded version of the al-Qaeda in Iraq organization that was formed a decade ago to confront U.S. troops and expanded into Syria last year while escalating its activities in Iraq.

It was in that context that Remnick asked about a possible resurgence of al-Qaeda. Here is what the transcript shows:

   Q:  You know where this is going, though. Even in the period that you’ve been on vacation in the last couple of weeks, in Iraq, in Syria, of course, in Africa, al-Qaeda is resurgent.

THE PRESIDENT:  Yes, but, David, I think the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

Q: But that JV team jus[t] took over Fallujah.

THE PRESIDENT:  I understand.  But when you say took over Fallujah –

Q:  And I don’t know for how long.

THE PRESIDENT:  But let’s just keep in mind, Fallujah is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology is a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.

 

The president’s “JV” comment was so striking that Remnick, in his article, referred to it as “an uncharacteristically flip analogy.” The New Yorker article does not specifically refer to ISIS, but it is fairly clear in the article — and certainly clear in the transcript — that Remnick was asking about its takeover of Fallujah.

In the White House briefing, Earnest asserted that Obama was referring to groups that “do not have designs on attacking the West or on attacking the United States … they certainly don’t have the capability of attacking the West.” He told reporters that “it’s important that we don’t sort of shorthand the analogy that the president was trying to draw here,” in that the president was referring to “jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes.”

But the context of Remnick’s question makes it clear that he was asking about ISIS, as the president acknowledged. Perhaps at the time the president viewed it as a local matter between jihadists, but now, eight months later, the United States is striking Islamic State targets in an effort to turn back its advance across Iraqi territory.

We asked Earnest and White House representatives for a response but over a four-day period did not get a reply.

The Pinocchio Test

With the passage of eight months, the president’s “JV” comment looks increasingly untenable, so we can understand why the White House spokesman would try to suggest that what is now known as the Islamic State was not the subject of the conversation.

But in quoting from the transcript, Earnest provided a selective reading of the discussion. In particular, he failed to provide the context in which Obama made his remarks — the takeover of Fallujah by ISIS. That’s fairly misleading. The interviewer was certainly asking about ISIS when Obama answered with his “JV” remarks.

Update: On Sept. 7, Obama himself reiterated this talking point, earning a “false” from PolitiFact and a “fumbled” from FactCheck.org. We thus also award Four Pinocchios to the president.

Four Pinocchios

 


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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