In a Rose Garden address Wednesday, President Obama condemned the killing of four American diplomats. But even before that statement, his Republican challenger Mitt Romney held a news conference of his own, in which he accused the administration of trying to appease Islamic extremists.
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It didn't take long for the attacks in Benghazi and Cairo to become part of the presidential campaign. Mitt Romney jumped in first. In a statement last night before Ambassador Stevens' death had been announced, Romney accused President Obama of sympathizing with those who waged the assault. The Obama campaign responded, saying it was shocked that Romney would launch a, quote, "political attack" at this moment. And the politics have continued today as NPR's Mara Liasson reports.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: President Obama came to the Rose Garden to call the killing of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three other Americans outrageous and shocking.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.
LIASSON: The president acknowledged that the attacks in Libya and similar protests in Cairo were apparently caused by anger over an amateur film made in America that some Muslims felt insulted the Prophet Mohammed.
OBAMA: We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None.
LIASSON: At the State Department, Hillary Clinton expressed the confusion that many Americans felt.
SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: How could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be.
LIASSON: But the secretary said this was not a case of an Arab Spring government turning on the United States.
CLINTON: This was an attack by a small and savage group, not the people or government of Libya.
LIASSON: But the Romney campaign saw an opening. Rich Williamson, a Romney spokesman, said last night that President Obama's failure to assert leadership throughout the Arab Spring set the stage for Tuesday's assault. Romney himself said the Obama administration had issued a, quote, "disgraceful statement" apologizing for American values.
MITT ROMNEY: The administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions.
LIASSON: In fact, the embassy in Cairo put out a statement before the embassy there, or in Libya, had been attacked. It condemned the efforts by, quote, "misguided" individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims. After the attacks, the embassy did put out a tweet, which might be what Romney is referring to, saying, quote, "sorry, but neither breaches of our compound or angry messages will dissuade us from defending freedom of speech and criticizing bigotry." Romney did not back off his criticism and he denied he jumped the gun before he knew all the facts.
ROMNEY: We express immediately when we feel that the president and his administration have done something which is inconsistent with the principles of America.
LIASSON: Some in Romney's own party suggested he took a risk by inserting himself into a fast-moving story in an area - national security - where President Obama has much higher poll numbers. Here's top Romney advisor and former White House chief of staff John Sununu on MSNBC.
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JOHN SUNUNU: You look at the way things unfolded, you look at the timing of it. They probably should have waited.
LIASSON: President Obama certainly agreed with that, telling CBS News Romney spoke too quickly.
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OBAMA: There's a broader lesson to be learned here. And Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later. And as president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that.
LIASSON: And a leading conservative, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, said that while Romney was right to bring home the weakness of the Obama administration, he needs to think through the meaning of these events and prepare serious presidential level responses. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.