By Justin Sink - 09/13/12 12:14 AM EDT
Mitt Romney hammered President Obama over his handling of the violent
protests at American diplomatic missions in north Africa — and stuck
to his attack throughout Wednesday, even as criticism flew from both
sides of the aisle.
It was an aggressive move for the Republican nominee, who has been reluctant to discuss foreign policy on the campaign trail — a tacit acknowledgment that the issue is considered a strength for Obama and of the extent to which the GOP hopes to focus the election solely on the economy.
“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,” Romney said.
Further complicating the issue for Romney was his assertion that the embassy press release was the “first response” from the Obama administration after the attacks. In fact, the statement was issued nearly five hours before protesters began gathering outside the Egyptian embassy, in hopes of pre-empting violence.
Furthermore, the White House claimed later Tuesday night that the comments were made by local staff without approval from Washington.
That left Romney largely on an island of his own making for much of the day, with many of his Republican allies wary of defending the apparent mistake, or openly rebuking the president’s handling of an unfolding foreign conflict.
Top foreign-policy surrogates like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made no mention of Romney in their statements condemning the attacks, with McCain even tweeting support for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
And Romney running mate Paul Ryan, asked explicitly how a Romney-Ryan administration would have handled the situation differently during a town hall meeting in Wisconsin, simply said it was “very important that a president speak with a singular voice.”
According to reports, however, Ryan was more critical of the administration at a later event.
But Romney reiterated that he stood firmly behind the criticism at a hastily arranged press conference Wednesday morning, and advisers — noting the White House had worked to distance itself from the embassy statement — accused Obama of “mixed messages” and “hypocrisy.”
“I also believe the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions,” Romney said. “It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and defend our values.”
Still, Team Romney had to battle against surrogates and allies who were oftentimes off-message. Although the Romney campaign issued a series of talking points to surrogates — obtained by CNN — many top Republicans said Wednesday they did not necessarily agree with the content or the timing of Romney’s attack.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, appearing at a National Press Club lunch, challenged Romney’s criticism of the president.
“I don’t think the president sympathizes with those who perpetrated these attacks,” Perkins said.
Meanwhile, former Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) told MSNBC that the Romney campaign “probably should have waited” before issuing its attack.
“You look at the way things unfolded, you look at the timing of it — they probably should have waited,” Sununu said.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), pressed about Romney’s initial statement, admitted he could not explain what exactly Romney was referring to.
“I’m not exactly sure what Gov. Romney was specifically talking about,” Rogers told MSNBC. “I think probably what you saw there was the frustration over a foreign policy that is probably a little out of kilter where I think the governor would be when it comes to the Middle East. I think that’s probably what you’re seeing there.”
The Obama campaign looked to seize on that sentiment Wednesday, with spokesman Ben LaBolt issuing a statement saying they were “shocked” that Romney “would choose to launch a political attack.”
And President Obama, in an interview with CBS News, said Romney “seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later.”
Other Republicans said that while they agreed with Romney’s larger criticism, he could have waited to refine the attack, and reduce the possibility his remarks would be viewed as cynically political.
“Gov. Romney in the big picture is right; the only question I would have — again, I’m not running for president, but I would have probably waited 12 or 14 hours and put out a more comprehensive statement,” said Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.).
But the Romney campaign fought to prevent the issue from becoming a foreign policy liability. When members of the media began asking if Republicans had abandoned Romney on the attack, the Romney campaign circulated a compendium of all the GOP legislators who had supported his comments throughout the day.
Later, Team Romney dispatched Ambassador Rich Williamson, a foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign, who tried to defuse the question over the timeline of events by saying he believed the embassy statement was reissued after the embassy in Cairo was breached.
“It’s my understanding it was reissued, it was not taken down and, in fact, the White House didn’t respond and back away from it and say they did not approve of the statement until many hours later, after President Obama had seen the statement from Gov. Romney,” Williamson told MSNBC.
And, the Romney adviser said, the substance of Romney’s attack remained.
“The fact is, the substance of what the governor said last night was true. He continues to stand by it. We shouldn’t be on an apology tour,” Williamson said, “but rather be aggressive in condemning this breach of sovereign American soil.”