White House Spokesman Denies Ransom Paid for Americans Prisoners Released by Iran

Josh Earnest distances White House from "leverage" statement by U.S. official.

— -- The White House is backtracking remarks by a senior administration official last week who characterized a $400 million payment to Iran as "leverage" in the release of several American prisoners.

The majority of today’s 78-minute White House press briefing explored the semantics around the State Department's use of the word "leverage" when describing the prisoner exchange and a $400 million payment to Iran.

“Because we had concerns that Iran may renege on the prisoner release ... we of course naturally ... sought to retain maximum leverage until after the Americans were released,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Aug. 18. “It would have been foolish, imprudent and irresponsible for us not to try to maintain maximum leverage. So if you’re asking me ‘Was there a connection in that regard in the endgame?’ I’m not going to deny that.”

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest aimed to draw a distinction between the delivery of the payment and the exchange, insisting that U.S. officials engaged with Iran on three separate agreements: First, the nuclear deal; second, the “mutual” prisoner exchange of four Americans for seven Iranians; and third, a $1.7 billion payment to Iran for an Iranian deposit for U.S. weapons plus interest since 1979.

Earlier this year, when the White House announced that Americans had been freed from Iran, it also said that a separate, decades-old financial dispute over the sale of U.S. weapons to Iran had been settled, resulting in the $1.7 billion payment. The first installment of that payment came in a $400 million cash delivery made up of euros and Swiss francs. That initial payment was withheld until Jan. 17, a day after the American prisoners were released.

Earnest repeatedly stressed the benefits achieved through the nuclear deal, primarily that Iran no longer has the means to pursue or obtain a nuclear weapon.

“All of this was accomplished without a single shot being fired,” Earnest said. “All of this was accomplished without U.S. troops deployed, and it's an indication of how effective the president's tough diplomatic strategy has proved to be.”

Earnest also confirmed that the $1.3 billion interest payment was also made through a transaction involving unspecified central banks, but not U.S. central banks. He did not say whether the payment was a cash payment like the $400 million paid to Iran earlier this year.

“The approach to this, again as we described this in January, has been, that there was an opportunity for the United States to make progress on a variety of issues that had been a longstanding source of concern between the United States and Iran. And because of our success in completing those -- that three different sets of negotiations, the American people benefited and our interests were advanced,” he said. “What we sought to do is to try to reach these agreements, to get them done, to move it across the finish line. And clearly, Iran was in the business of signing off on agreements. So we were going to go and get as much as we could out of the deal.”

Asked to describe the difference between "leverage" and "ransom," Earnest repeatedly said "leverage" is “not a word I used,” distancing himself from the characterization made by his colleague at the State Department.

ABC News' Justin Fishel contributed to this report