President Barack Obama held a press conference on Wednesday defending the controversial nuclear deal with Iran. However, he was taken aback by a tough question asked by CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett, which garnered the interest of social media.
In a transcript published by CBS News, Garrett asked the president two questions about the historic Iran nuclear deal. The first question focused on why the plight of four Americans in Iran was ignored in the landmark deal, and the other one asked Obama to comment on the perception that there was "a last-minute capitulation in these negotiations."
"As you well know, there are four Americans in Iran - three held on trumped up charges according to your administration, one, whereabouts unknown. Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content, with all of the fanfare around this [nuclear] deal to leave the conscience of this nation, the strength of this nation, unaccounted for, in relation to these four Americans?
And last week, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said under no circumstances should there be any relief for Iran in terms of ballistic missiles or conventional weapons. It was perceived that that was a last-minute capitulation in these negotiations, making the Pentagon feel you've left the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff hung out to dry. Could you comment?"
President Obama replied to Garett's questions with a sarcastic smile.
"I've got to give you credit, Major, for how you craft those questions," he said. "The notion that I am content, as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails - Major, that's nonsense. And you should know better."
The president then paused for a moment in forming a response.
"I've met with the families of some of those folks," Obama said. "Nobody's content, and our diplomats and our teams are working diligently to try to get them out."
The president explained why the plight of four Americans in Iran was not tied to the nuclear negotiations. He urged Garrett to "think about the logic that that creates."
"Suddenly, Iran realizes, you know what, maybe we can get additional concessions out of the Americans by holding these individuals - makes it much more difficult for us to walk away if Iran somehow thinks that a nuclear deal is dependent in some fashion on the nuclear deal," Obama said. "By the way, if we had walked away from the nuclear deal, we'd still be pushing just as hard to get these folks out. That's why those issues are not connected, but we are working every single day to try to get them out and won't stop until they're out and rejoined with their families."
The president proceeded to answer the second part of Garrett's question in regards to the testimony provided by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who contended that no relief should be given to Iran based on ballistic missiles or conventional weapons.
"We are not taking the pressure off Iran with respect to arms and with respect to ballistic missiles," Obama said. "As I just explained, not only do we keep in place for five years the arms embargo this particular new UN resolution, not only do we maintain the eight years on the ballistic missiles under this particular UN resolution, but we have a host of other multilateral and unilateral authorities that allow us to take action where we see Iran engaged in those activities."
The president added that "we should do a better job making sure that Iran's not engaged in sending arms to organizations like Hezbollah."
"As I just indicated, that means improving our intelligence capacity and our interdiction capacity with our partners," Obama said in reference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.
Tom Kludt of CNN Money reported that Garrett stood by his question, contending that Obama created a straw man in his response.
"My question did not suggest that he was content with the captivity of those four Americans," Garrett said. "My question was about the contentment, or the satisfaction, or the realization that it was necessary within the context of this deal to leave them unaccounted for. That was the essence of the question."
Garrett admitted that the question clearly "struck a nerve" with the president, adding "that was my intention."
According to Kludt, the interaction between Garrett and Obama lit up Twitter. Many journalists celebrated the tough question, while others condemned it and praised the president.
"There is an art to asking tight questions at a press conference where you may not get a follow up," veteran political reporter Jon Ralston wrote on Twitter. "Nobody does it better than [Garrett]."
Kludt reported that the four Americans Garrett referred to in his question were Pastor Saeed Abedini, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, and former Marine Amir Hekmati.