Republicans slam Biden administration for prisoner swap deal with Iran

Former President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress accused President Joe Biden of paying ransom to Iran to secure the release of American prisoners.

Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas are among the Republicans who are criticizing the administration for its prisoner exchange with Iran.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Republicans are voicing outrage at the Biden administration's decision to carry out a prisoner exchange with Iran, accusing President Joe Biden of paying ransom to a world state sponsor of terrorism.

The administration notified Congress on Monday that it has proceeded with the agreement, which has involved issuing a waiver that will give Tehran access to $6 billion in oil revenue that the U.S. had frozen through sanctions.

Under the agreement, the administration will free five Iranians under detention in the U.S., and in exchange, Iran will release five Americans it has detained.

Former President Donald Trump lashed out at Biden on Tuesday on Truth Social, saying the deal sets a "TERRIBLE precedent."

"So, lets get this straight! We did a hostage TRADE with Iran. We gave them 5 very tough, smart people that they desperately wanted. We likewise got back 5 people BUT, we also gave them 6 BILLION DOLLARS! How much of a kickback does Crooked Joe Biden get? Does anyone realize how much money 6 Billion Dollars is?"

The White House, however, said the U.S. is not giving Iran any money.

"This isn’t a payment of any kind. These aren’t U.S. dollars. They aren’t taxpayer dollars, they are Iranian dollars the previous Administration allowed them to make," National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.

To move forward with the deal, Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a waiver last week to international banks to allow the transfer of $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds from South Korea to Qatar. The agreement allows Iran to use the money to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian items allowed by U.S. economic sanctions.

A senior Biden administration official said the money in South Korea is Iran's. The official said the Trump administration had allowed several other countries, like India and Turkey, to continue to buy oil from Iran and deposit the funds in special accounts.

"No funds are going to Iran directly," the official said. "These funds will be moved to restricted accounts in Qatar, and the United States will have oversight as to how and when these funds are used."

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday about the GOP backlash.

Some Republicans said the administration's deal will encourage enemies of the U.S. to take more Americans hostage.

"I am always glad when Americans are released from captivity," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on X, formerly Twitter. "However, this agreement will entice rogue regimes, like Iran, to take even more Americans hostage. The ayatollah and his henchmen are terrorists and truly represent a terrorist state."

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said on Facebook: "The U.S. should be unrelenting in its efforts to bring detained Americans home, but Iran will now count pallets of ransom money, putting its leaders in a better position to develop a nuclear weapon and fund terrorists. And the price to release U.S. hostages will only go up."

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., the chair of the House Republican Conference, said on X that Biden's policies are "emboldening our adversaries while putting Americans’ safety and security at risk." She said that when the contours of the deal were announced, she joined House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, in demanding answers from the administration but that their request was "ignored."

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, alleged on X that Biden had struck a "secret nuclear deal with the Iranian regime" and that it was being "kept from Congress and the American people."

"The Biden administration must keep their deal secret because if they disclosed it, the law requires them to come to Congress and defend it, and this appeasement is utterly indefensible," he wrote, without providing evidence for his claims or other details. "Instead they will continue lying about their policies until Congress forces them to do otherwise."

The administration informed Congress about the steps taken in the deal and said additional briefings are already scheduled for this week.

A number of GOP lawmakers also blasted the administration for disclosing the latest developments on the 22nd anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In a statement, McCaul, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the agreement "creates a direct incentive for America’s adversaries to conduct future hostage-taking. It’s particularly egregious that this is taking place on the same week as the anniversaries of 9/11 — as Iran is actively harboring the leader of Al Qaeda — and Mahsa Amini’s murder by Iran’s so-called ‘morality police.’ The administration is demonstrating weakness that only further endangers Americans and freedom-loving people around the world."

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said on X: "First Joe Biden used 9/11 as an excuse to flee Afghanistan. Now he desecrates this day by paying ransom to the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism. Shameful."

Speaking to reporters Tuesday at the Capitol, Cotton said the way to prevent Iran from taking Americans hostage is "to not use carrots in the form of $6 billion, but to use sticks in the form of threats to things that Iran holds dear."

He added: "I don’t think the radical ayatollahs in Tehran are going to use this for children’s hospitals. They’re going to use it to find more attacks on Israel, more attacks on American troops in the region through their proxies. They’re to use it to send more missiles and drones to Russia for its war of aggression against Ukraine."

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 were perpetrated not by Iran but by members of Al Qaeda, most of whom were Saudi nationals.

The White House said Tuesday that the unfrozen funds can be used only for humanitarian reasons and are subject to more legal restrictions than they were in South Korea.

"These funds will be monitored by rigorous due diligence standards required by the U.S. Treasury Department," Watson said. " If Iran tries to divert the funds, we will take action to lock them up again."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., appeared to be the only Democrat willing to engage with reporters at the Capitol about the deal Tuesday. He expressed concern that while Iran might assure the U.S. will use the unfrozen funds for humanitarian aid, "there’s no guarantees of that."

"So I’m very much concerned about this," he said. "So we’re looking into a much deeper, but I’m very concerned."

The deal is expected to be completed this month, a senior administration official said. Watson said Monday that “no individuals have been or will be released into U.S. custody this week.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said in a new interview with NBC News' Lester Holt in Tehran that his government will decide how it will spend the $6 billion in previously frozen funds.

Qatar’s central bank will oversee the funds, which Iran will be able to use only for humanitarian purposes, as allowed by U.S. sanctions, U.S. officials have said.

But Raisi said in the interview that Iran would have “authority” over how the money would be spent. “This money belongs to the Iranian people, the Iranian government, so the Islamic Republic of Iran will decide what to do with this money,” he said, according to an Iranian government translator.