President Obama offered a spirited defense of his ambassador to the United Nations at a White House press conference Wednesday, saying Susan Rice’s work has been “exemplary” and challenging senators who are attacking her to instead “go after me.”
Ambassador Rice, who is thought to be at the top of Mr. Obama’s list of candidates to replace a departing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has become the focal point of Republican criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Rice used CIA-provided talking points when she went on national news shows five days after the deadly attack in Benghazi to describe it as a “spontaneous” event that grew out of outrage over an anti-Islam video.
Just before the president’s East Room press conference, his first since his reelection last week, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said they would support using a filibuster if necessary to block Rice if Obama nominates her to higher office.
But Obama, asked if criticisms of Rice would influence any plan he has for her, called it “outrageous” that political leaders are trying to “besmirch” her reputation. He advised critics of the administration’s actions on Benghazi who are going after Rice “because she’s an easy target” to instead go after the top.
“If Senator McCain and Senator Graham want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” Obama said, in remarks that were the most passionate of a press conference that otherwise focused largely on the president’s proposals for avoiding the looming “fiscal cliff.”
Obama said Rice has done “exemplary work” at the UN, adding that she has represented US interests with “skill, professionalism, toughness, and grace.” At the same time, Obama said he has not made any decisions about the slots to be filled on his foreign policy and national security team.
In addition to finding a new secretary of State, Obama now must also name a CIA director to replace David Petraeus, who resigned last Friday amid a scandal over an extramarital affair. Speculation is growing that Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, may also want to move on, and that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is likely to want to leave his post at least by sometime next year.
All of these changes provide Obama with the opportunity to refashion his foreign policy and national security team for a second term. It’s in this context, and given the strong rumors of Obama’s intentions for Rice, that McCain and Graham and other Republicans are voicing their opposition to her becoming secretary of State.
McCain on Wednesday said Rice’s comments about the Benghazi attack were evidence she is “not qualified” to be the top US diplomat. Speaking at a Washington press conference, Graham said Rice’s handling of the Benghazi issue on the Sept. 16 Sunday news shows showed her to be “a political choice with a political narrative,” and he added, “I don’t trust her.”
McCain later offered a riposte to Obama’s challenge to Rice’s critics to come after him instead. In a statement issued after Obama’s remarks, McCain said, “I have always said that the buck stops with the president of the United States,” and accused the president of making “contradictory statements” and failing to deliver a “full explanation” of what happened two months after the event.
McCain said the administration’s inability to deliver that explanation is why he is seeking creation of a “select committee” that would be charged with delivering the missing “full and complete accounting.”
Much of Washington had expected that the Petraeus scandal, lingering questions over its possible implications for the CIA’s Benghazi response, and the extension of the scandal to the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, might dominate the press conference.
But Obama said in response to the one question he received on Mr. Petraeus that he had no evidence that his “personal matter” had had an impact on national security or that at any time classified information was disclosed as a result of it.
Obama said Petraeus had had an “extraordinary career,” that he had served the country “with great distinction,” and that the US is “safer” because of that service.
When asked if he thought that he as president should have known earlier about a criminal investigation that ended up involving his spy chief, Obama cited established protocols that ban contacts between the Justice Department (of which the FBI is part) and the White House on criminal investigations.
“We’re not supposed to meddle in criminal investigations, and that’s been our practice,” Obama said. He said he has full confidence in the FBI’s investigation and that he is “withholding judgment” on the “process by which his CIA director and celebrated war general became ensnared in scandal until all the facts are known.
On Benghazi, Obama said his orders to his national security team upon learning of the attack were to “do whatever we need to do to make sure [our people] are safe,” although it is likely that two of the four Americans killed at Benghazi – the US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and diplomat Sean Smith – were already dead by the time that order was given.
Obama said that as the person sending Americans into dangerous places, he wants to get to the bottom of what happened in Benghazi as much as anyone. He pledged to “put forth every bit of information we have” once the investigations are complete, adding, “Whenever you have four Americans killed, that’s a problem.”