The Washington Post's Fact Checker awarded White House press secretary Josh Earnest “four Pinocchios” — its highest ranking for a lie — for his attempt at explaining what President Barack Obama meant in referring to the Islamic State as a junior varsity team among terrorists.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest pauses while speaking about the militant group al-Shabab in Somalia, during his daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
“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,” the Post's Glenn Kessler wrote.
“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," Kessler continued. "That’s fairly misleading. The interviewer was certainly asking about ISIS when Obama answered with his 'JV' remarks.”
Earnest was trying to explain Obama's comments, published in an interview with the New Yorker in January. Obama said that “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.” The Jan. 7 interview was conducted four days after the Islamic State took over Fallujah.
When a reporter asked Earnest late last month whether the president underestimated the Islamic State by referring to them as "JV," Earnest said he had pulled the full quote and read it out loud: “`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.'”
Earnest added, “So the president was not singling out ISIL, 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 let by Osama bin Laden.”
But Earnest's answer didn't put the interview in full context, Kessler said, referencing the New Yorker interview transcript.
In the interview, reporter David Remnick asked the president: “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.”
Obama responded, “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.”
Remnick followed: “But that JV team jus[t] took over Fallujah.”
Obama responded, “I understand. But when you say took over Fallujah.”
Reminck said, “And I don’t know for how long.”
Obama said, “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 Washington Post Fact Checker argued that because of the references to Fallujah, it is clear the reporter and the president were speaking about the Islamic State.
“The New Yorker article does not specifically refer to ISIS but it is fairly clear in the article—and certainly clear in the transcript—that Remnick was asking about its takeover of Fallujah,” Kessler wrote. “But the context of Remnick’s question makes it clear that he was asking about ISIS, as the president acknowledged. Perhaps at the time the president viewed it as a local matter between jihadists, but now, eight months later, the United States is striking Islamic State targets in an effort to turn back its advance across Iraqi territory.”
The Post said that Earnest did to respond to inquiries over a period of four days.