The White House is picking a fight with Rep. Steve Scalise over Iran, saying the House majority whip possibly lied about how much Tehran could realize in relief from economic sanctions in exchange for agreeing to curb its nuclear ambitions.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday was asked about Secretary of State John Kerry ’s assertion that businesses should not blame the U.S. financial system for the failure to strike deals with Iran. Some firms claim sanctions not addressed by the nuclear deal Tehran reached with Western powers last year still block Iran from accessing the American system or using U.S. currency for business deals.
Kerry told reporters in London before a meeting with Iranian officials and European bankers that private firms are using still-on-the-books restrictions as “an excuse.” Corporate executives, “if they don't want to do business or they don't see a good business deal, they shouldn't say, 'Oh, we can't do it because of the United States,'" Kerry said.
Iranian leaders complain that they are not seeing the full financial benefits promised under the nuclear deal. Asked if the White House knew the U.S. financial system and remaining restrictions might chill potential deals, Earnest said no.
[Related: Fight Looms Over Size of White House National Security Staff] Then, he turned his sights on the Louisiana Republican.
“What is false is people like Steve Scalise said that Iran would get quote, 'hundreds of billions of dollars.' So again, I don't know if Mr. Scalise is just really poorly informed or lying,” Earnest said. “But, what he predicted is not true. He said so at the time and now we can actually evaluate the facts and determine whether or not he was right. “Steve Scalise was wrong,” he added. “Not for the first time.”
A reporter later asked Eric Schultz, principal White House deputy press secretary, if Earnest was accusing Scalise of lying to the American people. He declined to comment.
But, notably, after stating clearly that the White House has concluded the No. 3 House Republican leader was “wrong,” Earnest later during his briefing brought up the notion that Scalise -- and other GOP members -- were not truthful about how much in a possible sanctions relief windfall Iranian leaders would get.
“And again, there was a point where ... we had sort of this debate and this dispute about how much of sanctions relief they would get,” Earnest said. "People like Steve Scalise, who said that Iran would get hundreds of billions of dollars. Again, they're either wrong or lying.”
The majority whip has fired off a series of statements and tweets making claims of a big payout coming to Iran via the nuclear accord.
"Under the deal negotiated by this administration, Iran will receive upwards of $150 billion in sanctions relief ,” Scalise said in an Oct. 1 statement.
[Related: Zika Spurs War of Words] In a blast email to reporters Tuesday evening, Scalise’s office blasted Earnest, saying he is “speaking on behalf of a president who is in full damage control mode after a top official bragged that the administration misled the American people in order to ram through their Iran deal.”
That was a reference to a New York Times Magazine piece in which Ben Rhodes , deputy national security adviser, made controversial remarks about how he oversaw the White House’s messaging campaign over the nuclear deal with Tehran
“It’s telling that Earnest spent several minutes of yesterday’s briefing dodging the simple question of whether the White House could ‘state categorically that no senior official in this administration has ever lied publicly about any aspect of the Iran nuclear deal,'” Chris Bond, Scalise’s communications director, said in the blast email.