Caught up in the middle of a roiling and deadly foreign policy crisis, Mitt Romney’s campaign denies it acted rashly in condemning the Obama administration’s reaction to fatal assaults against U.S. diplomats in Libya and a violent raid against the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Senior Romney advisers, who declined to speak on the record, said on Wednesday the protests at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, where U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed along with three others, demanded a comment from the GOP nominee. The larger point of Romney’s statement, which faulted the administration for initially siding with protesters in Cairo, was that Obama is misreading the violent underbelly of the Arab Spring and jeopardizing U.S. interests in the region.
“This was a story that was building the entire day,” a senior Romney official said of the developments that took place late on Tuesday and into Wednesday morning. “With the killing of a U.S. diplomat it is the type of thing where the Republican nominee for president has to have a response. This was a big deal. And the statement was about the consistent failure of this administration to engage constructively with the aftermath of the Arab Spring.”
Romney himself took the incident as an opportunity to criticize President Obama, calling an impromptu press conference while campaigning in Jacksonville, Fla. Romney focused on a statement the American embassy in Cairo issued as protestors were gathering outside its compound.
"I think it's a terrible course for America to apologize for our values," Romney said. "They clearly sent mixed messages to the world. And the statement that came from the administration -- and the embassy is the administration ... was a statement which is akin to apology and I think was a severe miscalculation."
The Obama campaign and White House officials said they were stunned by Romney’s criticism, calling it out of bounds in the midst of an on-going diplomatic tragedy.
But the Romney official said the campaign’s tough criticism of the White House was meant to set in motion a larger debate about U.S. interests in a region full of new and potentially hazardous political transformation.
“This is an opportunity and a chance for us to debate existing administration policy,” the senior official said. “It will be a part of a larger criticism about the president’s policy in the region.”
Yet, even Romney surrogates questioned the timing of Romney’s statement, which referred to the death of an American official, and originally carried a midnight eastern standard time embargo to avoid political criticism on 9/11.
“They probably should have waited,” said former Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H. “You look at the way things unfolded, you look at the timing of it, they probably should have waited.”
Asked if the Romney campaign had any doubts or second thoughts about the timing, substance or tone of its statement, the official said: “none.”
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo released a statement before the storming of the compound that criticized a web video fundamentalist Muslims said insulted the Prophet Mohammed, sparking the unrest.
“There were reports that crowds were gathering in Cairo and unrest was beginning,” a senior Romney adviser said. “Violence was brewing. It’s a class CYA move by the State Department now to say the statement came out before the violence began.”
Romney’s statement landed amid grief-inducing news of the deaths of Stevens and three other Americans, the official mourning over which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton began on Wednesday morning.
“Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior, along with the protest that took place at our embassy in Cairo yesterday, as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet,” Clinton said. “America's commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear. There is no justification for this. None.”
President Obama also was set to address the violence and its aftermath at the White House later Wednesday morning.
Eric Katz contributed to this story.