WASHINGTON -- President Obama strongly defended U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice against criticism of her initial response to the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, saying that it was “outrageous” for Republicans in Congress to try to “besmirch her reputation.”
In his first news conference since the Sept. 11 attack in eastern Libya, which killed four Americans, Obama said he intends to “get to the bottom” of what happened and will make sure officials are held accountable if lapses are found.
But when Republicans attack Rice “apparently because they believe she is an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me,” he declared. “If they want to go after somebody, they should go after me.”
Republicans have denounced Rice because she publicly said on Sept. 16 that the sacking of the U.S. mission in Benghazi was a spontaneous eruption of violence by a Libyan mob furious at an American-made video that mocked the prophet Muhammed, and not a preplanned assault by dozens of armed militants, including some linked to terrorist groups.
Obama said Wednesday that Rice “gave her best understanding” of the assessment provided to her by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Since the election, a small but growing number of congressional Republicans have said they would oppose any plan by Obama to nominate Rice to be secretary of State when Hillary Rodham Clinton steps down next year, as she has said she would do. If Rice is nominated, the critics said they would use confirmation hearings to bore in the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack.
Sens. John McCain, (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said earlier Wednesday that Rice is unqualified to be secretary of State because of comments they said were either ill-informed or deceptive.
But Obama’s full-throated defense suggests he believes he could win a public relations battle over Rice, who has been on his foreign policy team since the 2008 presidential campaign.
Obama said he hasn’t made his choice for a new secretary of State. But if he decides Rice is the best candidate, “I will nominate her,” he vowed.
Republicans showed no sign of backing down.
After the press conference, Graham said in a statement, “Mr. President, don’t think for one minute I don’t hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi. I think you failed as Commander in Chief before, during, and after the attack.”