JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Crises overseas tend to create moments of joint resolve back home, a time to pause from the daily bickering of partisan politics. But as news was streaming in about attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya, Mitt Romney broke from that protocol.
Statements that the Republican presidential nominee made slamming President Obama led to a day of tumult for Romney, with leading voices in his party criticizing him and his top aides scrambling to prevent further damage.
The situation started Tuesday night, with Romney accusing Obama of sympathizing with anti-American interests in the Muslim world — a common line of attack from the Republican.
But the timing of the statement — in the middle of the ongoing incidents in Libya and Egypt — led to an outburst of criticism that built as the night went on and intensified after Romney reiterated the charge at a hastily staged news conference here Wednesday morning.
“I think it’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values, that instead when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation,” Romney told reporters. “An apology for America’s values is never the right course.”
Minutes after Romney’s news conference, inside a small campaign office in a drab Jacksonville strip mall, a door down from the Blazin Reptiles exotic pet shop, Obama addressed the nation surrounded by the grandeur of his office. In the Rose Garden, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at his side and the White House behind him, the president mourned the loss of American lives and vowed that “justice will be done.”
Acting on what one senior campaign official said was the unanimous recommendation of his foreign policy and political advisers, Romney took a calculated gamble in admonishing the president before the full gravity of the situation was known.
But he was left hanging from a weak limb as many in his party — including his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) — appeared to undercut him with noticeably more conciliatory and somber responses. “This is a time for healing. It’s a time for resolve,” Ryan said Wednesday during a campaign stop in De Pere, Wis.
“It almost feels like Sarah Palin is his foreign policy adviser,” Matthew Dowd, who was a top strategist for president George W. Bush, said in an interview. “It’s just a huge mistake on the Romney campaign’s part — huge mistake.”
In an interview Wednesday afternoon with CBS News, Obama said there is “a broader lesson to be learned here.”
“Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later,” he told CBS. “And as president, one of the things I have learned is that you can’t do that. You have to make sure that statements you make are backed up by facts and that you have to think through the ramification before you make them.”
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview that Romney demonstrated “a level of political recklessness and expediency that I think defies America’s interest.”
“I think Mitt Romney is very sad,” Kerry said, adding, “There ought to be some limits to ambition and trying to exploit every opportunity.”
Top aides to Romney said publicly that they had no regrets, but some advisers and supporters acknowledged privately that this was a cautionary tale — that in a rapid-response media environment, thoughtfulness sometimes gives way to the intense drive to win the news cycle.
Aides distributed talking points to Republican officials and surrogates urging them to defend Romney’s tough stance. Romney did get some support, both initially and as the day went on. A minute after midnight, Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted: “Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and Pathetic.”
Later in the day, former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld tweeted: “The attacks on our embassies & diplomats are a result of perceived American weakness. Mitt Romney is right to point that out.”
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said that “Governor Romney is absolutely right, there is no justification for these deadly attacks and we should never apologize for American freedom.”
But others said that regardless of the critique, the timing of it was poor. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said Romney was “right on the larger point,” but “I probably would have waited a day or half a day.”
Romney has struggled with foreign policy. He was sharply criticized by Democrats and some Republicans for not mentioning the war in Afghanistan or paying tribute to U.S. troops in his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last month. And in July, Romney took a trip to Europe that was intended to show voters back home that he is a statesman but that was instead marred by mistakes.
Unlike Obama, Romney does not receive national security briefings, and his aides and advisers watched the news and Twitter to monitor the situations in Egypt and Libya on Tuesday.
They seized on a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo — apparently a response to outrage in Egypt over an anti-Muslim film made in California — that said: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”
The statement was written hours before protesters breached the embassy’s grounds — although the embassy took to Twitter after the breach to defend the initial statement. In Washington, unnamed White House officials told news outlets later Tuesday night that the embassy statement did not reflect U.S. government views.
By about 8 p.m. Eastern time, when Romney aides heard about the first U.S. casualty in Libya, they recommended to the candidate that he issue a statement, according to a senior campaign official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
“We were all in agreement that it was appropriate for the governor to say something, and we were all in agreement in terms of what he should say,” the official said.
At the time, aides said, they did not know that J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, had been killed in Benghazi.
Romney’s initial statement, just two sentences, echoed themes of “No Apology,” the candidate’s 2010 book. “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi,” he said. “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 also made clear at the news conference that he believes the embassy speaks for the White House. “The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth, but also the words that come from his ambassadors from his administration for his embassies.”
About 150 supporters had assembled at Romney’s campaign office here, expecting a small rally. Volunteers sat at phone bank tables, supporters held up campaign signs that read, “Florida Loves Mitt,” and shiny patriotic bunting lined the walls.
But aides quickly transformed the room into a setting more suitable for a formal news conference. They removed the signs and erected a blue curtain that covered the patriotic bunting. Four American flags were posted behind the wooden lectern where Romney would speak.
Aides escorted supporters outside to wait on the sidewalk, where dozens pressed their faces against the storefront windows to watch the candidate, dressed in a dark suit, crisp white shirt and blue tie, deliver his remarks.
“Americans woke up this morning with tragic news and felt heavy hearts as they considered that individuals that served in our diplomatic corps were brutally murdered across the world,” Romney said. “This attack on American individuals and embassies is outrageous. It’s disgusting. It breaks the hearts of all of us.”
Debbi Wilgoren, Ed O’Keefe, Paul Kane and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.