By Jordan Fabian and Amie Parnes - 10/20/15 11:17 AM EDT
Vice President Biden on Tuesday said he was not opposed to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, contradicting his previous statements about a judgment call that looms over his potential run for the White House.
Biden said that only two of the officials President Obama consulted at the time — Leon Panetta, who was serving as CIA director, and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates — gave definitive views on whether to launch the risky Navy SEAL attack on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
“I told him [privately] my opinion that I thought he should go, but to follow his own instincts,” Biden said. “I never, on a difficult issue, never say what I think finally until I go up in the Oval [Office] with him alone.”
Biden’s account differs sharply from the recollections of Obama, Panetta and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonKaine: GOP will keep House majority Clinton: Benghazi security was ‘not my ball to carry’ CNN suspends Donna Brazile as she takes DNC role MORE, whom he would have to defeat in order to claim the Democratic nomination in 2016.
Clinton has suggested she was in favor of the raid to go after the al Qaeda leader and touted her role in the process while campaigning for the White House.
The account also runs counter to Biden’s own past statements. In 2012, the vice president reportedly told House Democrats he had advised Obama to hold off on entering the compound until there was more certainty about bin Laden’s whereabouts.
“Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go,” Biden told lawmakers, according to The New York Times.
Obama offered a similar account of Biden’s position during a 2012 presidential debate with his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.
“Those decisions generally are not poll-tested. And even some in my own party, including my current vice president, had the same critique as you did,” Obama told Romney, suggesting Biden was against the raid.
One former senior administration official who was in the Situation Room for the Cabinet meeting said Biden was skeptical of the raid.
“[Clinton] was quite clear on when it came to taking a position from what I recall from the Situation Room conversations,” the former senior official said.
Another former official also recalled Biden being on the opposite side of Clinton.
“Secretary Clinton made her views known. Leon made his position known,” the former official said. “And I don’t recall the vice president sharing the same view.”
In his book on his years in the Obama administration, Panetta wrote of Biden being against the operation, and Clinton supporting it.
“Biden argued that we still did not have enough confidence that bin Laden was in the compound, and he came out firmly in favor of waiting for more information,” Panetta wrote in “Worthy Fights.”
The vice president’s office declined to comment further on his statement.
But former Obama chief of staff Bill Daley, who was present at Biden’s speech, backed up the vice president’s version of events, according to multiple media reports. Daley, who worked on Biden’s 1988 presidential bid, was in the Situation Room for the discussion about the raid but was not present for the Obama-Biden conversation afterward.
“I think the way he articulated it was absolutely the truth,” Daley said, according to The Washington Post. “I was in the room and I saw him walk out with the president. ... His explanation of that is absolutely on point.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest stayed out of the fray. He dodged multiple questions about the veracity of Biden’s account, saying he would not comment on private conversations between the president and the vice president.
“I am going to leave the dissection and the oral history of those days to those who were actually there,” Earnest said. “I don’t have any new insight to share with you about the president’s recollection of those events.”
Earnest, who said he was following Biden’s remarks on Twitter, said he was “not particularly” surprised by the vice president’s account, but declined to elaborate.
Biden’s narrative of the raid on the 9/11 mastermind could help him counter criticisms that he was on the wrong side of a crucial foreign policy decision.
During last week’s Democratic debate, Clinton said she was “one of [Obama’s] few advisers” to offer an opinion on the bin Laden raid.
“He valued my judgment, and I spent a lot of time with him in the Situation Room, going over some very difficult issues,” she said.
The vice president’s comments came amid rampant speculation about his 2016 plans, with reports suggesting his decision could come any day.
While Biden didn’t provide many clues during the hour-long appearance with former Vice President Walter Mondale, he did use the event to draw distinctions between himself and the former first lady, and to tout his close relationship with the president.
He argued he would be best suited to work across the aisle with Republicans and carry on the legacy of Obama.
“I still have a lot of Republican friends,” Biden said, jabbing at Clinton’s remark during last week’s debate that she sees the GOP as her “enemy.”
“I don’t think my chief enemy is the Republican Party. This is a matter of making things work.”
Biden said he’s fond of former Vice President Dick Cheney, a deeply unpopular figure with Democrats, even though he disagrees with how he used his office.
“I actually like Dick Cheney, for real,” Biden said. “I get on with him. I think he’s a decent man.”
Biden, who ran against both Clinton and Obama in 2008, said he agreed to become the then-Illinois senator’s vice president because of their close personal relationship and their similar views on policy.
“It started off that I knew I was simpatico with the president-elect,” he said. “We had a genuine relationship.”
Biden said Obama granted him the ability to sign off on all Cabinet picks — implying that he agreed to allow Clinton to become secretary of State.
And he suggested he had the upper hand on Clinton and her successor, John Kerry, when speaking with foreign leaders.
“We’ve had two great secretaries of State, but when I go, they know that I am speaking for the president,” Biden said.
— This story was updated at 8:41 p.m.