President Barack Obama walks to pick up his ball after putting on the first green during a round of golf at Farm Neck Golf Course in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
“We do not pay ransom. We didn’t here, and we won’t in the future.”
Barack Obama might like to have that one back this morning, to stick a pin in the moving finger that writes. But the finger done writ, and it won’t come back to cancel a single line of the president’s fatuous fib that the United States didn’t pay $400 million to ransom four hostages taken by the president’s friends in Tehran.
Perhaps the president can take some solace, thin as it is, in the fact that nobody believed him, anyway.
The lie fell apart Thursday when The Wall Street Journal reported that the money was withheld until the hostages were actually free, and provided details of how the swap took place. Rarely has a president been caught in such a big and brazen lie.
His earlier firm, sharp, no-nonsense declaration, “We do not pay ransom,” was just the kind of declaration that the president, a man with a reputation for a familiarity with words, should have learned by now to avoid. A presidential fibber has to leave himself a little wiggle room.
What he left is a declaration to take its place with other Obama classics: If you like the health plan you’ve got, you can keep it. Abandoning an ambassador to the mob in Benghazi was the fault of a homemade video. The regime in Syria better not cross the red line if Assad knows what’s good for him. And this enormous one: There’s no such thing as radical Islamic terrorism.
The president earned the humiliation when he sent the State Department spokesman out to tell reporters Thursday it was true, after all, that the United States would not hand over $400 million in cash — stacks and stacks of currency in several national denominations — until Iran handed over the hostages. The imams, who know how to drive a sharper bargain than the president, and friend or not they were not about to take the president’s check.
But the Thursday admission, by John Kirby, the State Department flack, was not the result of presidential remorse, that he was trying to clear a guilty conscience and make amends for peddling a lie that he knew was a lie. It was only further tough reporting by The Wall Street Journal, that the ransom had been paid and the hostages were on a Swiss plane and on their way home, that flushed confirmation of the facts from the White House.
The Journal had reported a fortnight ago that the United States paid the money and got the hostages, but the White House insisted then that the money was owed to Iran from an arms agreement with Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the late shah of Iran, that went sour four decades ago, and was unrelated to the exchange of money and hostages. It was just a coincidence of timing that everything happened at once. The administration’s admission Thursday confirms what everybody guessed, that the president was only peddling a cover story.
Other presidents have been tempted to pay ransom. There’s so much money available, and in human terms what’s wrong with spreading some of it around if it relieves the agony of a hostage and his terrified family? It’s easy to sympathize with Mr. Obama’s dilemma, not so easy to sympathize with his resort to a deceptive cover story.
Families of hostages know, he said on Aug. 4, “that we have a policy that we don’t pay ransom. And the notion that we would somehow start now, in this high-profile way, and announce it to the world, even as we’re looking in the faces of other hostage families whose loved ones are being held hostage, and saying to them, ‘we don’t pay ransom,’ defies logic.”
But he went further, scolding the press for its curiosity. “It’s been interesting to watch this story surface. … There wasn’t a secret. We were completely open with everybody about it and it is interesting to me how suddenly this became a story again.”
Someone at the White House should explain to the president that it became a story again because the cover story he peddled two weeks ago fell apart. He was right to surmise then that reporters are not always as lazy as he thinks, and there’s always a risk that a reporter outside the hive will smell the lie and take it as a challenge. There was unusual skepticism in the State Department briefing room Thursday.
After the State Department conceded that the money was swapped for the hostages after all, a reporter pressed harder to make sure. “In basic English, you’re now saying you wouldn’t give them $400 million in cash until the prisoners were released, correct?”
“That’s correct,” said the spokesman.
If basic English still means anything, that was a definition of “ransom” that Mr. Webster would be proud of.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.