AURORA | The same day he sought to distance himself from GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, echoed a dubious Trump claim lobbed at the White House: That the administration paid a ransom for the release of jailed Americans in Iran.
In an Aug. 4 campaign email, Coffman said he found it “deeply disturbing” that the Obama administration made a $400-million cash payment to Iran while negotiations were happening for the release of four Americans jailed in Tehran.
Without directly claiming the payment was indeed ransom, the email implies the release of the money had something to do with hostage negotiations.
“Payments like this will only serve to put a target on the backs of our soldiers, as terrorist organizations and rogue states everywhere will seek similar windfalls,” Coffman’s email read.
President Obama vigorously denied Thursday that the payment to Iran was ransom and defended the transaction as evidence that the nuclear accord with Iran has allowed for progress on other matters.
“This wasn’t some nefarious deal,” Obama said during a news conference at the Pentagon, prompted in large part due to statements made by Trump on the presidential campaign trail.
Cinamon Watson, a spokeswoman for the Coffman campaign, refused to say whether the congressman believed the payment was ransom but noted “the timing is suspect and raises a lot of questions.”
“Despite claims made by the White House, the cash delivery, which coincided with the release of … four American hostages, at best gives the perception of a payoff,” Watson said, noting Coffman has long been a critic of the Iranian nuclear deal and argued the previously frozen assets should have been paid to “American families who suffered losses as a result of state-sponsored Iranian terrorism.”
The money was delivered to the Iranian government in January, at the same time the nuclear deal was settled and the Americans were released. The payment was part of a decades-old dispute over a failed military equipment deal dating to the 1970s, before the Islamic revolution in 1979.
Obama expressed surprise at criticism of his administration’s cash payment to settle a longstanding legal claim, adamantly rejecting claims that it was a ransom paid for the release of the four Americans.
He pointed out that the payment, along with an additional $1.3 billion in interest to be paid later, was announced by the administration when it was concluded in January, a day after the implementation of a landmark nuclear agreement with Iran.
“It wasn’t a secret. We were completely open about it,” he said.
Obama allowed that the one piece of new information, first reported this week by The Wall Street Journal, was that the $400 million was paid in cash. It was delivered to Iran on palettes aboard an unmarked plane.
“The only bit of news is that we paid cash,” he said. “The reason is because we couldn’t send them a check and we couldn’t wire the money. We don’t have a banking relationship with Iran which is part of the pressure we applied on them.”
The payment has revived allegations from Trump and other critics of the Iran nuclear deal. Trump’s campaign released a statement Thursday night accusing the administration of a “cover-up” and slamming “Obama’s refusal to acknowledge that these funds will end up being used to subsidize terror.”
An Associated Press fact check of Trump’s claim noted there is no evidence that the episode with the sailors held by Iran was related to the Iran deal or the 1970s payment, nor was there any concrete evidence that the payment was, in fact, a ransom. Trump’s campaign rhetoric on the issue also prompted a rare admission that he was wrong — in claiming that he saw a video of the cash going to Iran.
On the campaign trail this week, the Republican nominee has been dramatically describing a video that he says shows the United States paying off Iran as part of a deal to release U.S. sailors from Iranian custody. But there’s no evidence such a tape exists.
And on early Friday, Trump appeared to finally acknowledge his mistake, tweeting that “The plane I saw on television was the hostage plane in Geneva, Switzerland, not the plane carrying $400 million in cash going to Iran!”
The admission marked a stark and unusual reversal for Trump, who rarely admits to error. But it may end the brewing controversy around his false claim — one that recalls his unsupported contention early in the campaign that he saw video of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the Sept. 11 attacks — instead of prolonging a potentially negative news story for the candidate.
To the frustration of Trump’s aides and fellow Republicans, the celebrity businessman has all too often proven unable to let go of a bad story, often instead fueling it — like he did this past week when he escalated a flap with the parents of a slain U.S. soldier who was Muslim — at the expense of the campaign’s message.
Trump first discussed the video on Wednesday.
“I’ll never forget the scene this morning. And remember this: Iran – I don’t think you’ve heard this anywhere but here – Iran provided all of that footage, the tape of taking that money off that airplane,” Trump told supporters at a rally in Daytona Beach, Florida.
“Now, here’s the amazing thing: Over there, where that plane landed, top secret. They don’t have a lot of paparazzi. You know, the paparazzi doesn’t do so well over there, right? And they have a perfect tape. Done by obviously a government camera. And the tape is of the people taking the money off the plane, right? That means that, in order to embarrass us further, Iran sent us the tapes, right? It’s a military tape. It’s a tape that was a perfect angle, nice and steady, nobody getting nervous because they’re gonna be shot because they’re shooting a picture of money pouring off a plane.”
He added, “And Iran released that tape, which is of quality like these guys have. Iran released that tape so that we will be embarrassed.”
But several senior U.S. officials involved in the Iran negotiations have told The Associated Press they weren’t aware of any such footage. Instead, the campaign said in an email late Wednesday that Trump was simply referring to footage “shown on all major broadcasts this morning.”
A Trump spokeswoman told the Washington Post, the video Trump saw was grainy nighttime footage of people getting off a small plane, holding bags. “Geneva, January 17,” the footage is clearly labeled. Trump apparently assumed that this footage depicted the cash transfer — and concocted the story on his own about how the footage was acquired and the motivations for its release.
Perhaps even more unbelievably, Trump then repeated his original claim Thursday at a rally in Portland, Maine — even after his campaign said that Trump had been mistaken.
Coffman faces outgoing Democratic state Sen. Morgan Carroll in the November general election. Carroll’s campaign declined to comment for this story.
— Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire, Jill Colvin, Matthew Lee and Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.