WASHINGTON | The gunfire at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, had barely ceased when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney seriously mischaracterized what had happened in a statement accusing President Barack Obama of “disgraceful” handling of violence there and at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
“The Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” Romney said in a statement first emailed to reporters at 10:09 p.m. Eastern time, under the condition it not be published until midnight.
In fact, neither a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo earlier in the day nor a later statement from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered sympathy for attackers. The statement from the Cairo Embassy had condemned anti-Muslim religious incitement before the embassy walls were breached. In her statement, issued minutes before Romney’s, Clinton had offered the administration’s first response to the violence in Libya, explicitly condemning the attack there and confirming the death of a State Department official.
“I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today,” Clinton said in a written statement received by The Associated Press at 10:08 p.m. “As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed. We are heartbroken by this terrible loss.”
Then, at 10:24 p.m., a Romney spokeswoman lifted the release restriction on the Republican’s statement, and it was widely published.
At the time, the Romney campaign did not know that the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens, had been killed, nor did the Obama administration. Libyans told American officials around midnight that the ambassador had died, but Americans were unable to confirm his identity until hours later.
“I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens,” Obama said in his first statement at 7:21 a.m. Wednesday, the next morning.
A closer look at the day’s events and rhetoric:
Tuesday, Sept. 11, Cairo, Egypt
Early Tuesday morning, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo got word that demonstrators, angry about an anti-Islamic film produced in the U.S., were gathering in the streets. It issued a safety warning to Americans: Stay out of the streets.
As the situation became increasingly tense— but while the crowd was still peaceful — the U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued a statement condemning what it called “religious incitement” as it worked to calm the tensions.
“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions,” the embassy said at 6:18 a.m. EDT, shortly after noon Cairo time.
That’s the statement that Romney referred to as the administration’s “first response.” By Wednesday morning, the Republican nominee was at a podium in Jacksonville, Fla., saying that statement “appeared to be an apology for American principles.” It’s a theme Romney has hammered against Obama throughout his presidential campaign, including in his campaign book, “No Apology.”
But the embassy’s condemnation of religious incitement hardly amounted to an apology.
Romney also said Wednesday that the Cairo Embassy “put out a statement after their grounds had been breached. Protesters were inside the grounds. They reiterated that statement after the breach.”
Not quite. Almost five hours after the Cairo Embassy issued its statement — at about 11:15 a.m. EDT — Associated Press images show protesters atop the Cairo Embassy’s walls. At about 11:33 a.m. EDT, the American flag there had come down.
The embassy did use its Twitter account to say, at about 8 p.m. EDT, that “this morning’s condemnation … still stands.” The tweet was later deleted.
The Obama administration later backed away from the embassy’s statement entirely. “That statement was not coordinated with Washington. It was taken down,” a senior administration official said.
Tuesday, Sept. 11, Benghazi, Libya
As the protests in Cairo were winding down, the situation in Benghazi was getting worse. At about 4:15 p.m. EDT, senior administration officials said, attackers had entered the compound, firing at officials and setting the consulate’s main building on fire. Three Americans were trapped inside, including Stevens, the ambassador. They became separated from each other; one made it out before going back inside to search for the others.
No one could find Stevens.
They took refuge in a second, smaller building around 4:45 p.m. EDT. More shooting started at 5 p.m., and two additional U.S. personnel were killed. Two more were wounded. It wasn’t until 8:30 p.m. EDT that Libyan security forces helped the Americans regain control of the compound. Still, no one knew where Stevens was.
That was less than two hours before Romney’s initial 10:10 p.m. statement.
At midnight, Libyans told American officials that Stevens was dead. But they had to wait until dawn to identify him.
At 10:43 a.m. EDT Wednesday, Obama was standing in the White House’s Rose Garden, offering a tribute.
Wednesday, Sept. 12, Jacksonville, Fla.
Just minutes before Obama appeared in the Rose Garden, Romney spoke to reporters at a hastily arranged news conference at his Jacksonville campaign office, walking to the podium at about 10:15 a.m. What was supposed to be a small rally was abruptly turned into a statement of condolence for the deaths in Libya — and a doubling down on the previous night’s criticism of Obama.
Romney was pressed about whether he would have made his Tuesday night statement if he’d had complete information about the situation in Benghazi.
“I’m not going to take hypotheticals about what would have been known what and so forth,” Romney said. “I — we responded last night to the events that happened in Egypt.”
But his statement had referenced both countries, referring to “attacks on our diplomatic missions.”
In Washington, Republican foreign policy veterans called Romney’s initial statement premature and rushed, with limited facts and an incomplete understanding of what was happening in Egypt and Libya. Romney’s team also was unclear about the timeline of when the Obama administration weighed in.
One Republican official advising Romney’s campaign on foreign policy and national security issues painted a picture of a Romney campaign more focused on ensuring Romney’s evening statement made it into morning news stories than on waiting for details about what had happened.
This official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering Romney’s campaign, said that as word of violence spread, campaign aides late Tuesday watched tweets coming out of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that were criticizing the filmmaker rather than condemning the attackers, and saw an opportunity to criticize Obama.
It wasn’t until Wednesday morning, when the U.S. confirmed the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, that Romney’s team recognized the severity of the situation — and that, the night before, it had opened itself up to criticism for politicizing a diplomatic crisis.
Associated Press writers Steve Negus in Cairo and Philip Elliott and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.