“The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration,” Trump said in a claim deemed both misleading and far-fetched by The Washington Post’s Fact Checker.
That Trump would criticize Obama for the 2015 Iran deal that sought to limit Tehran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions was not remarkable — he has done so repeatedly since running for office. But that he would use his first public remarks more than 12 hours after the Iranian attacks to bash another president with a misleading and incomplete narrative drew immediate outrage from Obama veterans and other Democrats.
“This is another series of despicable lies by President Trump,” former Obama national security adviser Susan E. Rice said on MSNBC. “The fact that three years after taking office he remains obsessed with President Obama shows extreme weakness and insecurity.”
“It’s not enough to frame Iran as our enemy. He needs a domestic enemy and again it’s the Obama Administration,” former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart wrote on Twitter. “Curious way of bringing the country together, blaming a previous President for financing the terrorism against the United States.”
It marked the latest in a long string of accusations from Trump and his allies who have accused the 44th president of seeking to “underwrite and appease” Tehran, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week.
Formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the accord also signed by China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom has long been criticized by Republicans for being too lenient. They have bashed the deal for failing to contain Tehran’s funding of terrorist groups and militia units in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and other Middle East countries and faulted the 15-year time span as too short, allowing Iran to restart a race to a nuclear weapon after the accord expires.
Trump made good on his campaign pledge to leave the deal in 2018, and since then he and his allies have publicly bickered with former Obama aides over its efficacy and Trump’s halting efforts to bring the Iranian regime to the negotiating table. That debate has intensified over the past week after Trump authorized the military drone strike that killed Maj. Gen Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top military strategist.
To former Obama aides, Trump and his allies have made false arguments and ad hominem attacks in a bid to whip up public sentiment against the deal. In his remarks at the White House, Trump repeated the contention that the deal awarded Iran $150 billion, and another $1.8 billion in cash, which the regime used to finance a “terror spree.”
In fact, numerous fact-checkers have called the argument misleading at best. The $150 billion figure was an estimate of Iranian funds frozen in international accounts through economic sanctions that would be released after Tehran signed the nuclear accord. The actual amount that Tehran was able to obtain was far lower, experts said, perhaps under $50 billion.
The additional $1.8 billion that Trump cited was money the United States owed Iran after military equipment the country purchased in the 1970s was never delivered amid tensions.
David S. Cohen, a former CIA and Treasury official in the Obama administration, called it specious to suggest that the deal amounted to a payoff to Tehran. And he emphasized that “the idea that you can trace the sanctions relief directly to the Quds force missiles” was implausible.
“There’s a more fundamental point here, which is that while the deal was in effect we didn’t have the [Iranians] shooting rockets at our forces,” Cohen said.
Obama aides have argued that Trump’s decision to drop out of the nuclear deal — even as the Europeans and the Chinese sought to maintain the framework — led to Iran’s increasingly provocative behavior. Last week, an Iraqi militia group aligned with Soleimani breached the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, prompting Trump to respond with the drone attack.
“Did Iran blow up Saudi oil fields, shoot down a US drone, kill an American working in Iraq, attack bases where American soldiers were stationed, or provoke demonstrations against our embassy in Obama era, after JCPOA was signed?” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration, wrote on Twitter. “I don’t remember that.”
But Trump allies and some conservative foreign policy analysts said the president was not being petty but rather making a clear philosophical break with Obama’s Middle East strategy, for which the Iran deal is a useful symbol.
“It’s not just a matter of, ‘We don’t support the deal because President Obama did it.’ I think that’s an untrue view of what is happening,” said Rebeccah Heinrichs, an expert on nuclear deterrence and missile defense at the conservative Hudson Institute. “There’s a fundamental difference in how the United States government is approaching the regime and the larger Middle East. The president speaks in shorthand and rather than spend several minutes explaining the differences, he talks about the Iran deal as shorthand.”
Heinrichs noted that Trump did not mention Obama by name, and she added that while it would be wrong to “assign malicious intent to the previous administration,” she did not believe Trump crossed that line in his remarks.
In January 2016, not long after the deal was finalized, then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry acknowledged in a television interview that some of the Iranian funds that would be unfrozen could “end up in the hands of the IRGC or other entities, some of which are labeled terrorists.”
Critics of the deal have cited it as evidence that the Obama administration was aware of Tehran’s intent to continue funding malign groups and attack U.S. allies and assets in the region. A former Obama aide who was involved in the Iran negotiations said Wednesday that the previous administration, recognizing the difficulty of fully changing Iran’s behavior, aimed to eliminate the “most important threat to the United States, which was by far the nuclear threat.”
This person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said that “dealing with all the other problems becomes infinitely harder if Iran has a nuke than if you don’t. You take it off the table and move to the other issues. That was the theory.”
That did not stop Trump allies from gleefully repeating his talking point on social media Wednesday.
Chuck Callesto, a GOP congressional candidate in Florida, posted a story from an obscure website on Trump’s remarks with the headline “Iran Rockets Were Funded by Obama” and asked his followers to retweet it.
Bill Mitchell, a talk-show host and Trump supporter, tweeted: “Trump went there and blamed Obama for buying the missiles Iran fired at us. This speech today gave, ‘Like a Boss’ a whole new meaning.”
In an analysis Wednesday, The Post’s Fact Checker found that Trump’s speech contained “a number of factually dubious statements,” including the claims about funding.
“All money is fungible, but Trump is stretching the factual evidence to blame the missiles on the deal negotiated by the Obama administration,” the analysis found. “Experts say such a claim is far-fetched and that intelligence tying Iran deal money directly to the missiles is highly unlikely.”