Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter is coming under intense criticism from Republicans for saying the "entire reason" the attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, had become a political topic was "because of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan."
But Cutter then accused Republicans of playing politics with the issue, and said pressure from the Romney campaign was the "entire reason" the issue had persisted.
"We would have told the American people what we knew and, you know, in terms of the politicization of this — we're here at a debate, and I hope we get to talk about the debate — but the entire reason that this has become the, you know, political topic it is, is because of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. It's a big part of their stump speech and it's reckless and irresponsible," Cutter said during her interview with CNN.
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Cutter was interrupted by the host of the program, who argued "the American people have a right to answers."
"Right, absolutely," Cutter said.
Romney quickly seized on the issue, responding sharply to the charge during a campaign rally in Asheville, N.C.
“No President Obama,” Romney said. “It’s an issue because this is the first time in 33 years a U.S. ambassador has been assassinated. It’s an issue because … we were attacked by terrorists on the anniversary of 9/11.
“This is an issue because Americans wonder why it was it took so long for you … to admit this was a terrorist attack. This is a very serious issue, these are very serious questions and the American people deserve very serious answers, and I hope they come soon.”
While Romney's campaign has used Libya as a starting point for its criticism of Obama's foreign policy, it has also come under criticism from other quarters.
Cutter's remarks came a day after the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on whether security lapses at the consulate were a factor in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others.
Lawmakers from both parties have requested information about the incident. Even Jon Stewart, the liberal host of "The Daily Show," has mocked the administration's story about what happened in Libya. Administration officials initially emphasized the role of an anti-Islam film posted on YouTube in the attack in Benghazi before saying it was a terrorist attack.
Ryan Williams, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, tweeted that Cutter's comments were "outrageous" and would be "the story of the day."
He added that the interview was "very rough."
But Cutter stuck with her message, tweeting a few minutes later that "Romney has politicized Libya [with] no plans of his own," and said the president's "priorities are getting facts and bringing terrorists to justice."
Cutter later released a statement that noted Romney had come under criticism for his reaction to the attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo, which also took place on Sept. 11 — the day the U.S. Consulate in Libya was attacked.
Romney had condemned the administration for a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Egypt that criticized an anti-Islamic film for being insensitive. A mob attacked the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in response to the film, and the embassy had sought to cool tempers before the attack with its statement. Romney's statement said it was akin to an apology over U.S. values of free speech.
Romney's condemnation was deemed insensitive by some on both sides of the aisle at the time because it was released just as the U.S. was learning of the death of Stevens.
“From the time of the attack in Libya, Mitt Romney has stopped at nothing to politicize these events," Cutter said in a statement.
"While Mitt Romney, Congressman Ryan, and their Republican allies in Congress have turned a national tragedy into a political circus, the President has been focused on getting the facts, finding the terrorists responsible, and bringing them to justice. Our nation’s security and how we handle the transitions in the Middle East and North Africa are critical issues in this campaign, and just 26 days before an election, the American people deserve real ideas and specifics from Mitt Romney.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One on Thursday that he had not discussed the Oversight Committee's hearing with Obama.
He said Obama "does feel an obligation to the American people to share with them what happened and what steps we’re going to take to minimize the threat or at least reduce the threat to our diplomats, who are doing some very dangerous but important work in countries all around the world."
At the White House press briefing on Wednesday, press secretary Jay Carney said officials had initially spoken "based on the facts we knew at the time" and that the White House has always insisted "this was an ongoing investigation."
"This is a moving picture," Carney said, adding that "our sole interest — the president's sole interest — is to find out exactly what happened."
—This story was updated at 4:36 p.m. and 7:03 p.m.