The Romney campaign continues to defend its increasingly isolated response to the Libya consulate attack, claiming that the White House implicitly acknowledged its criticism was accurate by disavowing an earlier statement from the U.S. embassy in Egypt.
“If Gov. Romney ‘jumped the gun’ why were White House officials also distancing themselves from the statement?” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement. “Why didn’t President Obama take any questions from the press this morning to explain?”
Saul was referring to a statement released Tuesday by the U.S. embassy in Cairo, which said that it “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.” The White House later disavowed that press release and subsequent tweets from the embassy’s Twitter account that referred to it were deleted.
Here’s the problem: The fallout over Romney’s reaction has much less to do with the content of the initial embassy statement and a lot more to do with the timing of what unfolded Tuesday night. The embassy’s condemnation of an anti-Muslim film was issued before the compound in Egypt was breached and before an attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya killed four people, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. That order of events directly undercuts Romney’s statement Tuesday night 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.”
Romney tried to get around this blatant contradiction Wednesday by saying he was referring to tweets by the embassy affirmed their initial statement after the Egypt protest got out of hand (but well before the Libya murders). But even those tweets actually included a condemnation of the embassy breach as well. Either way, it takes a pretty massive leap to get from ambiguous tweets by besieged social media outreach staff member at an embassy in Egypt to claiming the White House itself reacted to the death of Americans in Libya by expressing sympathy for militants.
In fact, the first reactions from the State Department and White House were strong condemnations.
“Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet,” said a statement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued Tuesday evening. “The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”
That reaction did not satisfy Romney, either: He said the administration’s decision to break from the embassy’s statement and take a harsher tone constituted “mixed signals.”
Romney could still be upset that the US condemned an anti-Muslim film promoted by Florida pastor Terry Jones. And indeed, many critics have bristled at the idea that America should have to account for an individual citizen’s speech abroad.
But according to talking points from the Romney campaign obtained by CNN, Romney’s surrogates have been instructed to condemn Jones using language nearly identical to Clinton’s:
- Governor Romney rejects the reported message of the movie. There is no room for religious hatred or intolerance.
- But we will not apologize for our constitutional right to freedom of speech.
- Storming U.S. missions and committing acts of violence is never acceptable, no matter the reason. Any response that does not immediately and decisively make that clear conveys weakness.
- If pressed: Governor Romney repudiated this individual in 2010 when he attempted to mobilize a Quran-burning movement. He is firmly against any expression of religious hatred or intolerance.
The Romney campaign’s latest attempt to clean up their Tuesday attack ignores the reasons it generated so much backlash to begin with, without providing any new explanation as to why it attacked the White House so quickly and fiercely before all of the facts surrounding the attacks were clear.
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.