Washington – The White House locked horns on Thursday with a House committee chairman over whether a senior aide should testify before Congress about his role in crafting President Barack Obama’s public relations campaign in favor of the Iran nuclear deal.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest did not rule out the possibility that deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes would testify before the House oversight committee at a Tuesday hearing on “White House narratives on the Iran deal.” But Earnest tried to brush off the request from Chairman Jason Chaffetz by casting the Utah Republican’s hearing as political theater and challenging the GOP case against the agreement.
“I think there are some people who have some explaining to do when it comes to the wildly false accusations that they made about the Iran deal. And it’s not the administration. It’s Republicans who are demonstrably wrong when it comes to the Iran deal,” Earnest said, accusing several Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., of being “wildly misinformed, mistaken or lying” when they made claims about the deal’s economic benefits for Tehran.
Chaffetz responded to Earnest on Twitter. “Dear @PressSec , @SenTomCotton will testify if @rhodes44 is man enough to show. Let’s discuss the truth,” he wrote.
The back-and-forth is the latest fallout from a New York Times Magazine story published last week that quotes Rhodes, a speechwriter and top foreign policy adviser, as saying he created an “echo chamber” of supportive experts in an effort to persuade lawmakers to vote in favor of the legacy-burnishing deal in which Iran agreed to curbs its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. The article also claims Obama misrepresented the timeline of the negotiations, in an effort to create a story line that bolstered their case.
Rhodes has responded to the piece by saying the White House’s case was based on facts.
Chaffetz did not say whether he would try to compel Rhodes to testify by issuing a subpoena.
By focusing on GOP claims on sanction relief, Earnest revived a fight about the financial impact of the deal.
GOP critics, including Cotton, have said the deal “gives” Iran $100 billion. The White House says the figure is roughly half that.
The difference comes down to how you count it. In its accounting, the administration has focused only on the money Iran repatriates and not what it spends on infrastructure projects and other commitments overseas.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has said Iran has $100 billion in foreign reserves that it’s been unable to access. After sanctions relief, Treasury estimated that Iran would be able to freely access about half of that $100 billion. Another $20 billion was inaccessible because it is committed to projects with China and tens of billions of other restricted funds are in nonperforming loans to Iran’s energy and banking sector.