CAPITOL HILL— A rift has emerged between U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican lawmakers in Congress over America’s United Nations ambassador, Susan Rice.
On Wednesday, Obama defended Rice from Republican allegations that she misled the nation about the deadly September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The ambassador is said to be a possible candidate to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
At a news conference Wednesday, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham called for a special committee to investigate the Benghazi attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. They also had strong words about any possible nomination of Susan Rice to a new post in the Obama administration.
“We will do whatever is necessary to block the nomination that is within our power, as far as Susan Rice is concerned,” McCain said.
McCain and other lawmakers sharply criticized Rice for statements she made on several U.S. television programs after the Benghazi attack. This is what she said on September 16 on ABC television's "This Week" program:
“Our current best assessment, based on the information we have at present, is that, in fact, this began as a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response to what had transpired in Cairo,” Rice said.
Rice noted that demonstrations had erupted in Egypt and elsewhere because of an Internet video that insulted Islam, and said that the violence in Benghazi also flowed from the video.
President Obama later said that the attack was a planned terrorist act.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham had this to say about Susan Rice: “I do not trust her. And the reason I do not trust her is because I think she knew better. And if she did not know better, she should not be the voice of America. I do not think she deserves to be promoted,” Graham said.
At a news conference later Wednesday, President Obama defended Rice, calling the senators’ criticism “outrageous.”
“She [i.e., Rice] gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her. If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me. And I am happy to have that discussion with them,” Obama said.
Obama said he has made no decisions about Cabinet posts for his second term, but that he would have no reservations about nominating Susan Rice.
“She has done exemplary work. She has represented the United States and our interests in the United Nations with skill and professionalism and toughness and grace,” Obama said.
Obama’s words provoked a terse response from Senator Graham. In a statement, he said, “Mr. President, do not 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.”
The Benghazi attack occurred eight weeks before the U.S. general elections, and it was addressed during two debates between President Obama and his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Some analysts have questioned whether the Obama administration initially downplayed the true nature of the Benghazi attack to shield the president from political fallout. Obama denies the allegations.
On Wednesday, the president promised consequences for the attack.
“I don’t think there is any debate in this country that when you have four Americans killed, that is a problem. And we have got to get to the bottom of it and there needs to be accountability. We have got to bring those who carried it out to justice,” Obama said.
Several committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate are investigating the Benghazi attack. A special select committee would have access to the witnesses, materials and findings of all of the other committees, yielding, according to Republicans, a more thorough and comprehensive report.
Special committees have been authorized in the past to probe incidents such as the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation and the Iran-Contra affair that shook the administration of President Ronald Reagan.