National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s comments that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl served with "honor and distinction" has amplified GOP criticism of President Obama's prisoner swap and undermined Rice’s credibility on Capitol Hill.
Independent experts have cast doubt on Rice’s judgment, given questions about whether Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban after deserting his post in Afghanistan. Even allies of the White House are suggesting she stay off the Sunday talk shows.
“When I saw her on TV making that honor and distinction comment it just seems so phony to me,” said Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. “I think she doesn’t think seriously about the content of the words and it gets her in trouble and it embarrasses the president.
“It’s a problem if you have people who say things that end up attracting such adverse attention,” he added.
Rice is under fire for touting Bergdahl’s military record, after his former platoon mates accused him of deserting his post and endangering the lives of his comrades.
She doubled down on her statement Friday by insisting that Bergdahl deserved praise for volunteering to serve in a dangerous conflict.
“Let's remember this is a young man who volunteered to serve his country. He was taken as a prisoner of war,” she said in a CNN interview.
Patrick Ventrell, Rice’s spokesman, said “she stands by what she said in this instance and stands by her service.”
But even Obama’s allies say Rice should lay low for a while to avoid attracting more flak on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington.
“First she’s given incomplete talking points about Benghazi, then she’s dispatched to say on the talk shows that Bergdahl served with ‘honor and distinction.’ If I were Rice, I’d start taking Sundays off,” wrote Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson.
Robinson’s unsolicited advice to Rice meshes with what her fiercest critics on Capitol Hill are saying.
“My recommendation is that from now on Susan Rice stay home with her family and not go on any of the Sunday talk shows,” said Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden steps onto global stage with high-stakes UN speech Biden falters in pledge to strengthen US alliances 20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance MORE (R-Ariz.).
“Who told Susan Rice he served with honor and distinction? Where does she get all this stuff? Who told her that the consulate in Benghazi was strongly and significantly secured when it was a death trap?” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamFranken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Ohio Republican tests positive for breakthrough COVID-19 case Trump lawyer offered six-point plan for Pence to overturn election: book MORE (R-S.C.).
Republicans still resent Rice for her claim that the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, erupted spontaneously from an unruly crowd protesting an inflammatory film that mocked Islam.
McCain and Graham have accused Rice of a political cover-up to protect Obama from criticism for not adequately defending U.S. personnel in Libya on the 11th-year anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Rice’s tenuous relationships with key figures on Capitol Hill has made it more difficult to sell the decision to release five senior Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl.
Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken has taken the lead in apologizing to Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam Republicans caught in California's recall trap F-35 fighter jets may fall behind adversaries, House committee warns MORE (D-Calif.) for not giving her a personal heads-up on the swap and briefing senators at a classified meeting Wednesday.
Lingering GOP suspicion of a Benghazi cover-up has spurred Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE (R-Ohio) to set up a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks and calls for a similar panel in the Senate.
Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Rice has become viewed as an adviser often deployed to handle the administration’s political dirty work.
“Susan Rice is like a ghost. We hardly see anything of her and they seem to trot her out to tell convenient untruths,” Pletka said. “I’m not sure it’s whether she doesn’t know what the truth is, she’s not interested it in telling it or she’s just a patsy for people who make decisions in the administration.”
Rice on Friday pushed back against criticisms that she plays fast and loose with the facts on Sunday talk shows.
“I'm up front with the American people. And I always do my best on behalf of my country and I do my best [with] the facts as we know them,” she told CNN.
“In the case of Bowe Bergdahl, for me to condemn him without any opportunity for him to have the chance to tell his side of the story, without any due process that we accord any American, that would be inherently unfair,” she said.
Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the National Security Council, told BuzzFeed earlier in the week that the White House expected a backlash against the prisoner exchange that freed Bergdahl and wanted the public to reflect on Bergdahl’s service and years of captivity before the partisan sniping began.
Rice defends her Benghazi statements by arguing that she provided the best available information when she went on the morning talk shows.
“Parts of it turned out to be wrong. I regret that the information I was provided was wrong and that I delivered to the American people. That doesn't make me a liar,” she said.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution, said national security advisors traditionally promote the president’s political as well as policy agenda.
He said much of the Republican hostility against Rice stems from her role as a national security adviser on Obama’s 2008 campaign and her opposition to the troop surge in Iraq, which McCain and Graham vigorously supported.
Blinken is viewed with less animus by some Republicans on the Hill because he initially worked for Joe BidenJoe BidenUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Schumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks GOP Rep. Cawthorn likens vaccine mandates to 'modern-day segregation' MORE’s 2008 presidential campaign —when he and Obama were opponents — and is considered not as close to the president.
“If I were convening a jury to weigh in on Susan’s performance, McCain and Graham couldn’t be on it because they’ve become so caught up in this particular debate that it’s hard to believe other issues will get a truly independent hearing in their mind,” O’Hanlon said.
“Susan now is associated not only with these two specific issues but also the president’s campaign,” he added. “When Susan Rice was helping Obama win the nomination and get ready to defeat McCain, she was a core part of his campaign.”
O’Hanlon said McCain and Rice sparred at the time over the efficacy of increasing troop levels in Iraq “and that has not been forgotten.”
Nevertheless, he said Rice’s statement on Bergdahl’s service is “one you can challenge on a number of levels.”
“Some of the concerns are very valid,” he added.