We learned Tuesday evening that the United States gave $400 million to Iran on the same day that four American prisoners were released from Iranian prison.

Was it a ransom payment? Some U.S. officials say no, but some Iranian officials say yes. White House Spokesman Josh Earnest spent much of his daily press briefing defending the payment, saying, "Let me be clear: The United States does not pay ransom." He also tried to pivot the conversation toward the disunity in the Republican Party over presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Earnest tried to claim Republicans were "flailing" by asking these questions. Perhaps they are "flailing" in other ways, but it's a pretty important question, and one the White House shouldn't be trying to deflect.

Below, I'll lay out the case for and against this payment being a ransom, based on reporting from the Wall Street Journal. Republicans in Congress are, naturally, set to investigate the matter further, so new information could shift the pendulum one way or the other.

It was ransom:

  • U.S. officials acknowledged that Iranian negotiators wanted the cash to show they had gotten something in return.
  • Despite Secretary of State John Kerry claiming the prisoner release "unlocked" diplomatic channels, Iran has since arrested two additional Iranian-Americans.
  • Senior Iranian defense officials claimed the cash was indeed a ransom payment.
  • Iranian news sites reported the money arrived on the same day the American prisoners went home.
  • Gen. Mohammad Reza Naghdi, a member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, bragged: "Taking this much money back was in return for the release of the American spies."

It was not ransom:

  • Earnest and senior U.S. officials denied the cash was ransom. (Weak, but still.)
  • The payment was part of a settlement between Iran and the U.S. over a failed arms deal from 1979.
  • Different teams in both Iran and the U.S conducted the negotiations for the payment and prisoner release.
  • It was the first installment of the settlement, which is worth $1.7 billion overall.

Whether the money was actually a ransom payment may matter less than whether it was perceived as such, especially by Iran. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said the payment "put a price on the head of Americans, and has led Iran to continue its illegal seizures" of American citizens. Knowing they can get money out of the U.S. in exchange for prisoners could make it more dangerous for Americans in the country going forward.
Iran could be using American prisoners as its own ransom for receiving the settlement money. Earnest was asked — and could not answer — the most important question of all: Would those prisoners have been released without the $400 million? If so, then the money was part of the settlement. But if not, then it seems like a ransom, even if it is does cover part of a settlement.

Ashe Schow is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.