HEMPSTEAD, NY — Republicans are not happy with Candy Crowley’s mid-debate fact check of Mitt Romney’s Libya claims, with many prominent conservatives claiming — inaccurately — that Crowley herself admitted she was wrong.
Crowley injected herself into a Libya exchange after Romney pressed Obama over whether he used the phrase “acts of terror” on September 12 to describe the Libya murders the night before.
“You said in the Rose Garden, the day after the attack, it was an act of terror?” Romney said. After Obama urged him to “get the transcript,” Crowley cut in: “He did in fact, sir, call it an act of terror.”
The transcript, from Obama’s Sept. 12 speech in the Rose Garden: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.” He used the same phrase the next day, explicitly referring to the Benghazi attack.
Romney supporters after the debate were annoyed with the exchange. John Sununu told TPM in the spin room that Obama “said terror will not dissuade us, he did not say it was an act of terrorism.” Others made similar arguments, with NRO’s Jim Geraghty also suggesting the line was ambiguous.
“What I know is she was wrong,” Romney adviser Ed Gillespie told TPM.
Both Gillespie and Sununu cited Obama’s UN speech two weeks after the attack that referred frequently to the anti-Muslim YouTube video as evidence that Obama was still blaming spontaneous protestors rather than organized terrorists. Others, like RNC spokesman Sean Spicer, cited the same speech on FOX News the next day.
“Two weeks later he said six times that it was the problem with the video that caused it and refused even two weeks later at the UN to acknowledge it was an act of terrorism,” Sununu said.
But this, too, was a semantic fight. Obama referred to the video six times in his UN speech, but never said the video caused the Libya attack. The video did lead to a riot at the Egyptian embassy in Cairo (which Romney invoked in his initial response to the unrest on Sept. 11) and protests in other Muslim countries. Obama said in the speech that it “sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world.”
The problem was that Republicans had a very strong point they could lean on heading into the debate. White House officials, most notably UN ambassador Susan Rice, said initially the Libya attacks were spontaneously caused by the anti-Muslim film before having to acknowledge the initial account was inaccurate. But because of Romney’s clear slip on the specific wording of an Obama speech, they were forced to either prove that Crowley was wrong on less-than-compelling technicalities or admit Romney blew it on the facts.
Crowley went on CNN after the debate and repeated that Romney was incorrect about Obama’s Rose Garden statement. But she added that the larger argument against the administration’s explanation was valid.
“They spent two weeks telling us this was about a tape, and you know this riot outside the Benghazi consulate, which there wasn’t,” she said. “So he was right in the main, I just think he picked the wrong word.”
“She already backtracked from that statement,” Ryan said. “She said Mitt Romney was right in what he said.”
This was inaccurate. Crowley actually said the same thing in the debate itself: “He did call it an act of terror. It did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.”
Crowley pushed back Wednesday morning after the debate against the growing conservative myth that she had changed her mind. And she reaffirmed the basic narrative of the debate: Romney decided to challenge Obama on an extremely specific and easy to fact-check issue — whether he said a certain phrase — and forced an otherwise clear train of thought off the rails.
“We got so stuck on that ‘act of terror,’” Crowley said on CNN Wednesday. “Now, did the President say this was an act of terror? The president did not say — he said ‘these acts of terror,’ but he was in the Rose Garden to talk about Benghazi, so I don’t think that’s a leap.”
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.