Mitt Romney’s harsh and factually inaccurate condemnation of President Obama’s handling of a deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya puts him well in front of the rest of his party.
Romney’s aggressive attacks on Obama are a reversal from Romney’s usual approach, where he waits for the party to reach a consensus before stepping in. Nowhere was this more clear than during the military operation in Libya that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, when Romney avoided taking a decisive stand in any one direction.
Romney issued a statement late Tuesday condemning Obama’s handling of the attack after news broke that an unnamed foreign service officer had been killed — and even suggested that Obama had expressed support for militants.
“It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” he said.
In fact, Romney was wrong: A statement from the U.S. Embassy in Egypt (later disavowed by the White House) condemning an anti-Muslim film made in America was issued before the compound was breached.
As the severity of the attacks became clear — including confirmation that Ambassador Chris Stevens had died in Benghazi, Libya — and Romney’s chronology was called out in the press as demonstrably false, few Republicans stepped forward to follow the Republican nominee’s lead.
In the House and Senate, top Republican leaders refrained from mentioning Obama, and instead offered messages of sympathy, unity and even praise for the State Department.
“Yesterday we commemorated the anniversary of the attacks of September the 11th, and today we are reminded that brave Americans serve us every day at the risk of their own lives,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said in a statement. “We honor the Americans we lost in Libya and we will stand united in our response.”
Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) announced plans for a moment of silence in the House and ordered flags at half staff.
“We mourn for the families of our countrymen in Benghazi, and condemn this horrific attack,” he said in a statement. “Eleven years after September 11, this is a jolting reminder that freedom remains under siege by forces around the globe who relish violence over free expression, and terror over democracy — and that America and free people everywhere must remain vigilant in defense of our liberties.”
A joint statement from three of the Senate’s most prominent foreign policy hawks, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), took a similarly measured response that acknowledged that the full story of what happened on Tuesday had not yet emerged.
“There is still much we do not know about what happened in Benghazi yesterday,” the statement read. “What is clear, however, is that the attackers must be apprehended and punished. We appreciate that senior Libyan leaders have condemned these cowardly attacks, and we now look to the Libyan government to ensure that the perpetrators are swiftly brought to justice, and that U.S. diplomats are protected. We have confidence that our own government will provide all necessary assistance to this end.”
McCain said later on Twitter that Clinton’s statement Wednesday morning condemning the attack, was “excellent and moving.” Graham, while critical of Obama’s broader foreign policy on FOX News Wednesday, reiterated that he sided with Clinton’s efforts to transition the government to democracy.
“Under Gaddafi it was the policy of the government to kill Americans,” he said. “This is an outrage and I think Hillary is right.”
Another key lawmaker popular with the right, rising star Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), refrained from criticizing Obama in a statement on Twitter as well.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who spoke on Romney’s behalf at the Tampa convention, did not mention the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis in her own response mourning the ambassador’s death.
The most prominent backup Romney received from a top GOP official was RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who tweeted just after midnight eastern time (when the Sept. 11 anniversary had passed) that “Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic.” Others siding with Romney included Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin.
The next morning, Priebus took a more mournful tack.
Our prayers are w/Ambassador Stevens’ family and the families of those killed in the attacks in Libya. We mourn their loss and grieve w/them— Reince Priebus (@Reince) September 12, 2012
Update: Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who is closely tied with the tea party movement, became the first Senator to back up Romney on Libya. “Governor Romney is absolutely right, there is no justification for these deadly attacks and we should never apologize for American freedom,” he said in a statement.
Update II: Governor Bobby Jindal (R) at least offered partial support to Romney, but credited Obama as well for disavowing the US embassy in Egypt’s statement”
Both the President and Gov. Romney were right in condemning the shameful statement released by our US embassy in Egypt.— Gov. Bobby Jindal (@BobbyJindal) September 12, 2012
That statement, the 1st first statement by this Administration was pathetic & reveals a lack of judgment. Very troubling.— Gov. Bobby Jindal (@BobbyJindal) September 12, 2012
Update III: Romney got a nod of support from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Twitter.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.