Obama vigorously defends UN envoy Rice, calling criticisms 'outrageous'
Obama called Susan Rice's work at the UN 'exemplary' and said Sens. McCain and Graham, who threatened a filibuster to block her nomination to higher office, should instead 'go after me.'
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Obama offered a spirited defense of his ambassador to the United Nations at a White House press conference Wednesday, saying Susan Rice‚Äôs work has been ‚Äúexemplary‚ÄĚ and challenging senators who are attacking her to instead ‚Äúgo after me.‚ÄĚ
Ambassador Rice, who is thought to be at the top of Mr. Obama‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúspontaneous‚ÄĚ event that grew out of outrage over an anti-Islam video.
Just before the president‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúoutrageous‚ÄĚ that political leaders are trying to ‚Äúbesmirch‚ÄĚ her reputation. He advised critics of the administration‚Äôs actions on Benghazi who are going after Rice ‚Äúbecause she‚Äôs an easy target‚ÄĚ to instead go after the top.
‚ÄúIf Senator McCain and Senator Graham want to go after somebody, they should go after me,‚ÄĚ Obama said, in remarks that were the most passionate of a press conference that otherwise focused largely on the president‚Äôs proposals for avoiding the looming ‚Äúfiscal cliff.‚ÄĚ
Obama said Rice has done ‚Äúexemplary work‚ÄĚ at the UN, adding that she has represented US interests with ‚Äúskill, professionalism, toughness, and grace.‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs in this context, and given the strong rumors of Obama‚Äôs 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‚Äôs comments about the Benghazi attack were evidence she is ‚Äúnot qualified‚ÄĚ to be the top US diplomat. Speaking at a Washington press conference, Graham said Rice‚Äôs handling of the Benghazi issue on the Sept. 16 Sunday news shows showed her to be ‚Äúa political choice with a political narrative,‚ÄĚ and he added, ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt trust her.‚ÄĚ
McCain later offered a riposte to Obama‚Äôs challenge to Rice‚Äôs critics to come after him instead. In a statement issued after Obama‚Äôs remarks, McCain said, ‚ÄúI have always said that the buck stops with the president of the United States,‚ÄĚ and accused the president of making ‚Äúcontradictory statements‚ÄĚ and failing to deliver a ‚Äúfull explanation‚ÄĚ of what happened two months after the event.
McCain said the administration‚Äôs inability to deliver that explanation is why he is seeking creation of a ‚Äúselect committee‚ÄĚ that would be charged with delivering the missing ‚Äúfull and complete accounting.‚ÄĚ
Much of Washington had expected that the Petraeus scandal, lingering questions over its possible implications for the CIA‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúpersonal matter‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúextraordinary career,‚ÄĚ that he had served the country ‚Äúwith great distinction,‚ÄĚ and that the US is ‚Äúsafer‚ÄĚ 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.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre not supposed to meddle in criminal investigations, and that‚Äôs been our practice,‚ÄĚ Obama said. He said he has full confidence in the FBI‚Äôs investigation and that he is ‚Äúwithholding judgment‚ÄĚ on the ‚Äúprocess 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 ‚Äúdo whatever we need to do to make sure [our people] are safe,‚ÄĚ although it is likely that two of the four Americans killed at Benghazi ‚Äď the US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and diplomat Sean Smith ‚Äď 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 ‚Äúput forth every bit of information we have‚ÄĚ once the investigations are complete, adding, ‚ÄúWhenever you have four Americans killed, that‚Äôs a problem.‚ÄĚ