Mitt Romney pressed a prudent line of attack on President Obama on Tuesday night when the topic of the Benghazi, Libya, attack surfaced in Tuesday night’s town hall-style presidential debate. Echoing a story that has circulated heavily in conservative media in recent weeks, Romney recalled the Obama administration’s contradictory explanations as to what had caused the attacks:
There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration or actually whether it was a terrorist attack. And there was no demonstration involved. It was a terrorist attack, and it took a long time for that to be told to the American people. Whether there was some misleading or instead whether we just didn’t know what happened, I think you have to ask yourself, why didn’t we know five days later, when the ambassador to the United Nations went on TV to say that this was a demonstration. How could have we not known?
Solid, substantive, unimpeachable rhetoric from Romney.
When Obama got a chance to volley back, this is among the points he made (bolded text inserted):
The day after the attack, Governor, I stood in the Rose Garden, and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror. And I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime. And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families.
Then things got testy:
MR. ROMNEY: I think it’s interesting; the president just said something, which is that on the day after the attack, he went in the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror. You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Please proceed.
MR. ROMNEY: Is that what you’re saying?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Please proceed, Governor.
MR. ROMNEY: I -- I -- I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
That falsehood prompted an intervention — prohibited by official debate rules! — by CNN’s Candy Crowley, the moderator: “It — he did in fact, sir.”
Romney came off as being shellshocked by the mere suggestion.
And why wouldn’t he? Conservative media on the Benghazi story have driven at a single data point: the misleading statements of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice on Sept. 16, as she visited multiple Sunday talk shows and cited how the attacks stemmed from spontaneous protests related to an anti-Muslim video. Over and over: Susan Rice, Susan Rice, Susan Rice.
Make no mistake about it — the focus on Rice is solid, and outlets including Fox News have been right to crusade for accountability on the administration’s muddled and scandalous suggestions about the video and the attacks, which killed four American personnel.
But still — that style of coverage has made very little allowance for nuance and inconvenient details, like the one that President Obama mentioned on that debate floor: He did indeed refer on Sept. 12 to “acts of terror” in a speech about the Benghazi tragedy. As he insisted Tuesday night, he used the term in a Rose Garden address:
No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today, we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.
Josh Gerstein of Politico helpfully wrote a post on that part of the Obama statement after Washington carried itself away with the notion that the administration hadn’t approached the truth in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Though the president didn’t use the term “terrorism,” he came awfully close. Some critics insist that the reference to “acts of terror” doesn’t explicitly encompass the Benghazi situation. To his discredit, the president took another couple of weeks to fully acknowledge the terrorism behind the Benghazi assault.
With his allegation that it took the president 14 days to acknowledge the “act of terror,” however, Romney revealed that perhaps he’d spent some time inside a coverage bubble on the Benghazi story. In the words of one onlooker, he “[c]onfused conservative spin for the truth.”
The mixup, plus the intervention by Crowley, will add to the public’s understanding of the affair. The Obama administration’s explanation of the attacks was at many times misleading, belatedly honest and always confused. Confused, that is, just like Romney’s understanding of it.