DENVER - Looking to capitalize politically on the unexpected and tragic killings of America's ambassador to Libya and his staff, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney issued a blistering statement Wednesday morning attacking President Barack Obama for his response to the situation.
Romney ripped Obama for a statement made Tuesday night, and since disavowed, by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that the GOP candidate likened to an apology, calling it "disgraceful to apologize for American values.
"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,” said the statement released Tuesday night.
Now, Romney is under fire from observers across the political spectrum for attempting to politicize the tragedy, especially after doubling down on his position at a press conference in Florida Wednesday morning.
“Their administration spoke," Romney said. "The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth, but also the words from his ambassadors, from his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department. They clearly sent mixed messages to the world. And the statement that came from the administration—and the embassy is the administration—the statement that came from the administration was a statement which is akin to apology. And I think it was a severe miscalculation.”
J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador, was killed along with three of his staff members in an on the American Consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday night by an armed mob angry over a short American-made video mocking Islam’s founding prophet.
It's the first death of an American envoy abroad in over two decades, coming a day after the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
President Obama addressed the attacks during a short speech in the White House Rose Garden Wednesday morning but ignored Romney's remarks for the time being.
"These four Americans stood up for freedom and human dignity,” Mr. Obama said in a televised statement from the White House Rose Garden where he stood side-by-side with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “Make no mistake: we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.”
In a statement emailed to reporters earlier in the morning, Obama strongly condemned the attacks.
“I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens,” said Obama in that statement. “While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”
The trigger for the anti-American outbursts may have been an amateurish, American-made video that opens with scenes of Egyptian security forces standing idle as Muslims pillage and burn the homes of Egyptian Christians. Then it cuts to cartoonish scenes depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a child of uncertain parentage, a buffoon, a womanizer, a homosexual, a child molester and a greedy, bloodthirsty thug.
The trailer was uploaded to YouTube by someone identified as Sam Bacile, whom The Wall Street Journal Web site described as a 52-year old Israeli-American real estate developer in California. He was quoted as telling the Web site he had raised $5 million from 100 Jewish donors to make the film. “Islam is a cancer,” Mr. Bacile was quoted as saying.
Romney, in responding so quickly and strongly to the killings, is trying to gain ground on foreign policy issues, an area where polls show President Obama with a double-digit edge.
But even some GOP strategists have joined other political observers now questioning Romney's response.
Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, told Fox News Wednesday that Romney, in her view, isn't "doing himself any favors.
"When hot things happen, cool words -- or no words -- are always the way to go," Noonan said.
“I was thinking as he spoke, I think I belong to the old school of thinking that in times of great drama and heightened crisis, and in times when something violent has happened to your people, I always think discretion is the better way to go. When you step forward in the midst of a political environment and start giving statements on something dramatic and violent that has happened, you're always leaving yourself open to accusations that you are trying to exploit things politically.
Time's Mark Halperin Wednesday wrote that Romney's doubling down on his criticism "is likely to be seen as one of the most craven and ill-advised tactical moves in this entire campaign."
Later Wednesday, criticism of Romney continued to mount, including from Mark Salter, who served as Sen. John McCain's top stratgeist during the 2008 campaign.
In a terse essay posted on the website Real Clear Politics, Salter wrote that Obama's policies in the Arab world are not ro blame for the attack on the American embassy in Cairo and the killings in Benghazi overnight.
"The rush to condemn [Obama] in the wake of these attacks by Republicans from Mitt Romney to Sarah Palin, and scores of other conservative critics for policies they claim helped precipitate these attacks is as tortured in its reasoning as it is unseemly in its timing," Salter wrote.
President Obama, in an interview with CBS "60 Minutes" Wednesday, offered a sharp, but measured critique of Romney and his comments on the Libya uprising.
"There's a broader lesson to be learned here," Obama told CBS's Steve Kroft. "Gov. Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later. As president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that."
Asked if Romney's remarks were responsible, Obama told Kroft, "I'll let the American people judge that."
And Colorado GOP Congressman Mike Coffman, a former Marine who served in Iraq, told FOX31 Denver that Romney was walking a tightrope with his strident comments.
"I think Mitt Romney's right in one respect, that the first reaction from our president and our government should be that of outrage over these attacks," Coffman said.
"At the same time, I do have to admit that when we have troops on the ground in Afghanistan and in other Islamic countries, while I believe in the First Amendment, I do wish that more Americans would be concerned about our troops on the ground who will suffer retribution from some of the speech and statements that people in those host countries view as as inflammatory.
"I do think Americans ought to think twice about their actions."
Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, told FOX31 Denver that politicians should put their differences aside in the aftermath of attacks.
"I was distressed by Gov. Romney's comments," Udall told FOX31 Denver. "On foreign policy, when things like this happen, the politics ought to stop at the water's edge."
Late Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial defending Romney.
"Mr. Romney is right that a U.S. Embassy ought to ignore YouTube videos produced by obscure cranks," the Journal opines. "The broader point is that the attacks on the embassies do raise questions about how America has fared in the world in the last four years.
"His political faux pax was to offend a pundit class that wants to cede the foreign policy debate to Mr. Obama without thinking seriously about the trouble for America that is building in the world."