The Washington Post Fact Checker gave White House press secretary Josh Earnest the maximum of four Pinocchio’s for saying the President wasn’t singling out the terrorist group ISIS when he called them a “JV” team in January during an interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick, despite evidence to the contrary.
Question: “Did the president underestimate ISIS [the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] when he referred to them in an interview only a couple months ago as a JV squad and making a reference to National Basketball Association basketball teams like the Lakers?”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest: “I thought somebody might ask this question today so I wanted to pull the transcript of the interview because it’s important to understand the context in which this was delivered. So let me just read the full quote and then we can talk about it:
“‘I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.’
“So the president was not singling out ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, another name for the group], he was talking about the very different threat that is posed by a range of extremists around the globe. Many of them do not have designs on attacking the West or attacking the United States, and that is what puts them in stark contrast to the goals and capability of the previously existing al-Qaeda core network that was led by Osama bin Laden.”
– exchange at White House news briefing, Aug. 25, 2014
Remnick’s article, which appeared in the January 27, 2014 issue, was based on a series of interviews with the President over several months, but the comments in question were made in an interview in the Oval Office on January 7, according to a previously unreleased transcript obtained by The Fact Checker.
The Fact Checker pointed out that the date was important because newspapers had reported that just four days earlier, ISIS had captured and raised their flag over Fallujah, signaling the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Iraq. And that was what Remnick was quizzing the President about.
Q: You know where this is going, though. Even in the period that you’ve been on vacation in the last couple of weeks, in Iraq, in Syria, of course, in Africa, al-Qaeda is resurgent.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, but, David, I think the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.
Q: But that JV team jus[t] took over Fallujah.
THE PRESIDENT: I understand. But when you say took over Fallujah –
Q: And I don’t know for how long.
THE PRESIDENT: But let’s just keep in mind, Fallujah is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology is a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.
The Fact Checker says that while Earnest tried to tell reporters that Obama was referring to “jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes,” it is clear from the transcript that he was indeed speaking about ISIS.
The Pinocchio Test
With the passage of eight months, the president’s “JV” comment looks increasingly untenable, so we can understand why the White House spokesman would try to suggest that what is now known as the Islamic State was not the subject of the conversation.
But in quoting from the transcript, Earnest provided a selective reading of the discussion. In particular, he failed to provide the context in which Obama made his remarks — the takeover of Fallujah by ISIS. That’s fairly misleading. The interviewer was certainly asking about ISIS when Obama answered with his “JV” remarks.
Since The Fact Checker’s analysis, PolitiFact has also chimed in and rated Obama’s statement to Chuck Todd on Meet the Press on Sunday—that he was speaking regionally and not about ISIS—as false.