Even the debate moderator who claimed otherwise has since changed her tune, which leaves a pretty big opening for Republicans to address on Barack Obama’s response to the Benghazi attack — both in real terms and in the debate last night. After Candy Crowley cut off Mitt Romney by erroneously claiming that Obama had declared the act terrorism — which she recanted after the debate — most other fact checkers reached the opposite conclusion. Here’s Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post, for instance:
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.
Politico’s Mike Allen also said that Obama’s reference to “terror” wasn’t related to the Benghazi attack, but a general statement:
There’s going to be a bunch of fact checks, but just to do a fact check here. … And I’m looking at the transcript of that White House event the day after and he started by referring to them as selfless acts, which is casted very differently than the sort of very planned action that we now have. Later toward the end, he makes a reference to 9/11 and he says, very generally, we will not let acts of terror go unpunished. So that’s going to be an arguable point.
Arguable point? Four days later, the Obama administration sent Susan Rice to five Sunday talk shows to argue that the attack was a “spontaneous demonstration” that “spun out of control.” Obama himself went on the David Letterman Show to say the same thing two days later, and then blamed the attack on the YouTube video at the UN. He explicitly said that “the future should not belong to those who insult the prophet of Islam.”
Today, Paul Ryan proceeded to argue that “arguable point,” and claim that Obama fibbed a bit last night:
GOP vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) on Wednesday defended Mitt Romney’s debate attacks on Libya, repeating charges that President Obama had waited two weeks to dub the violence at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi an act of terrorism.
“It was a passing comment about acts of terror in general, it was not a claim that this was a terrorist attack,” Ryan said on ABC’s “Good Morning America. “Nobody believes that that Rose Garden speech from the president was suggesting that that [individual act] was an act of terror.” …
Ryan doubled down in three separate appearances on broadcast morning shows. He went over the timeline distributed by the Romney campaign that documents statements by the White House and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for two weeks following the incident, where it was called spontaneous and the violence was blamed on an anti-Islam YouTube video. The administration has since acknowledged it was a terrorist attack.
Ironically, the President’s reaction to Romney’s criticism on Libya provided Obama with his best optics of the night. However, his false claim will likely revive this story once again in the media, which will hurt more than the optics will help, writes Stephen Hayes, and even more ironically, that will happen because it was perceived as a stumble on Romney’s part:
The second 2012 presidential debate featured a sharper Barack Obama, a series of tough exchanges, and one memorable back-and-forth on Libya. And just as Joe Biden’s answers on Libya in the vice presidential debate drove several days of news, the discussion of Libya Tuesday night will be central to the presidential contest over the next week.
There are several reasons for this: Obama’s answer on Libya was highly misleading; Romney stumbled in his response; the debate moderator fact-checked Romney during the debate but later acknowledged his broader point was correct; the administration hasn’t even begun to answer the questions at the center of the controversy; and the debate next Monday will focus on foreign policy.
Here’s the irony: Mitt Romney flubbed his response to the Libya question, and to average voters it probably seemed as though President Obama handled the exchange well. But the persistence of Libya as an issue, and the inability of the Obama administration to reconcile its early narrative with, well, reality—means that the issue is certain to help Romney and hurt Obama. And the fact that Romney’s answer was inartful virtually ensures the exchange will get more attention than it would have if the only mistake had been Obama’s.
Indeed. I’d expect Romney to have these fact-check citations memorized for next Monday’s debate on foreign policy — and the extra attention this will receive might produce even more inconvenient truths about what State, the intelligence community, and the White House knew, and when they knew it.
Update: American Crossroads dug up an admission by Jay Carney on September 20th that the administration had not called it an act of terror up to that point, emphases mine:
Q Can you — have you called it a terrorist attack before? Have you said that?
MR. CARNEY: I haven’t, but — I mean, people attacked our embassy. It’s an act of terror by definition.
Q Yes, I just hadn’t heard you —
MR. CARNEY: It doesn’t have to do with what date it occurred.
Q No, I just hadn’t heard the White House say that this was an act of terrorism or a terrorist attack. And I just —
MR. CARNEY: I don’t think the fact that we hadn’t is not — as our NCTC Director testified yesterday, a number of different elements appear to have been involved in the attack, including individuals connected to militant groups that are prevalent in eastern Libya, particularly in the Benghazi area. We are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al Qaeda or al Qaeda’s affiliates, in particular al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
That seems pretty conclusive.