In what surely was one of the weirdest incidents in a presidential debate, CNN’s Candy Crowley egregiously sided with President Obama on his false remarks on Libya, was repeatedly and decisively fact-checked post-debate as wrong (somewhere between “mostly wrong” and “pants on fire” in my book) and then backed away from her own incorrect assertion. As was the case in the vice presidential debate, the biggest story may be the after-the-debate tumult over White House misrepresentations on Libya.
Here was the exchange:
ROMNEY: Yeah, I -- I certainly do. I certainly do. I -- 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.
ROMNEY: Is that what you’re saying?
OBAMA: Please proceed, Governor.
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.
OBAMA:Get the transcript.
CROWLEY: It -- he did in fact, sir.
So let me -- let me call it an act of terrorism -- (inaudible) --
OBAMA:Can you say that a little louder, Candy? (Laughter, applause.)
CROWLEY: He did call it an act of terror. It did as well take -- it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.
ROMNEY: This -- the administration -- the administration -- (applause) -- indicated that this was a -- a reaction to a -- to a video and was a spontaneous reaction.
CROWLEY: They did.
ROMNEY: It took them a long time to say this was a terrorist act by a terrorist group and -- and to suggest -- am I incorrect in that regard? On Sunday the -- your -- your secretary or --
ROMNEY: Excuse me. The ambassador to the United Nations went on the Sunday television shows and -- and spoke about how this was a spontaneous reaction.
But Crowley and Obama had it wrong. the Post’s Glenn Kessler explained:
What did Obama say in the Rose Garden a day after the attack in Libya? ”No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this nation,” he said.
But he did not say “terrorism”—and it took the administration days to concede that that it an “act of terrorism” that appears unrelated to initial reports of anger at a video that defamed the prophet Muhammad.
In fact, that reference to “acts of terror” didn’t appear in any sentence or paragraph with “Libya” or “Benghazi.” In that Rose Garden speech Obama seemed to obliquely refer to the purported provocation (the anti-Muslim video) when he said: “Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None. The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts.” The reference to “acts of terror” (plural, not the singular attack on Benghazi) was in reference to 9/11/01 and other jihadist attacks:
Of course, yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks. We mourned with the families who were lost on that day. I visited the graves of troops who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hallowed grounds of Arlington Cemetery, and had the opportunity to say thank you and visit some of our wounded warriors at Walter Reed. And then last night, we learned the news of this attack in Benghazi.
As Americans, let us never, ever forget that our freedom is only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases, lay down their lives for it. Our country is only as strong as the character of our people and the service of those both civilian and military who represent us around the globe.
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.
She owes Romney and the country a more forthright correction and apology.
As Mickey Kaus wrote, “He only used the phrase after talking about the original 2001 9/11 attacks, after all. Maybe those were the ‘acts of terror’ that wouldn’t shake our resolve, etc. that Obama was talking about. The antecedent is ambiguous, presumably intentionally so.” For that reason, he argued, “She didn’t let the candidates make their arguments about what Obama’s statement did or did not mean – obviously the right course to take. She flatly intervened to declare that Obama’s interpretation was right.”
Notwithstanding all of that and even facing two opponents, both wrong, Romney should certainly have moved in for the kill. If Obama had said it was terrorism on Sept. 12, than why did Susan Rice tell the country a different story on Sept. 16? Certainly then Obama should not have continued to link the anti-Muslim video to the attack in his Univision appearance on Sept. 20 (“ What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests”) and in his United Nations speech on Sept.25. And why did Obama not make clear it was a terrorist attack on “The View” that same day?(“We are still doing an investigation. There is no doubt that the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action. Now, we don’t have all the information yet, so we are still gathering.”)
But what Romney forfeited on debating points remains a gnawing, deepening problem for the president. What did he know and when did he know it? Why was he seemingly oblivious to the deteriorating security situation in Libya months earlier when, among others, the International Red Cross, pulled out of what was fast-becoming a jihadist haven?
This controversy is not going away and will continue to dominate the headlines, soak up the political oxygen and make it increasingly difficult for Obama to recapture the momentum.
Romney could use some sharpening on foreign policy to put Obama away next Monday, although each debate is of less significance. Romney would do well to simply recite the timeline to viewers, making clear the president was either dissembling or out of the intelligence loop (which quickly discarded the spontaneous video protest theory because, of course, there never was a protest).
Romney was entirely on the mark on one count: Libya is indicative of a failed Middle East policy in which Obama has repeatedly misjudged our enemies, kicked our friend Israel and left the United States less influential than ever. (“Look what’s happening in Syria, in Egypt, now in Libya. Consider the distance between ourselves and Israel, where the president said that — that he was going to put daylight between us and Israel. We have Iran four years closer to a nuclear bomb. Syria — Syria’s not just the tragedy of 30,000 civilians being killed by a military, but also a strategic — strategically significant player for America. The president’s policies throughout the Middle East began with an apology tour and pursue a strategy of leading from behind, and this strategy is unraveling before our very eyes.”) Not even Candy Crowley can fudge that.