A fiery Barack Obama delivered a sharp rebuke to two top Republicans during his first press conference since winning the White House just over a week ago.
The U.S. President took questions on the David Petraeus affair, negotiations with Republicans over the "fiscal cliff," immigration changes, Syria and climate change. But it was a question from a reporter about Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that yielded the most intense moment of the news conference.
Ms. Rice's name is being discussed as a possible replacement for Hilary Clinton at the U.S. State Department – an appointment Republicans say they would oppose because of her role in explaining the September 11 th attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
"If Senator [John] McCain and Senator [Lindsey] Graham and others want to go after somebody they should go after me," said Mr. Obama. "For them to go after the U.N. ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi … to besmirch her reputation is outrageous."
Mr. Obama defended Ms. Rice's "exemplary work" as U.N. ambassador – a role in which she has shown "toughness and grace," said the president. Mr. Obama also reiterated the White House position that Ms. Rice's appearance on NBC's Meet the Press was at the request of the administration.
In that appearance on September 16 th , Ms. Rice was asked to share her assessment of who was behind the attacks on the U.S. Consulate that claimed four lives, including the life of the U.S. ambassador. Ms. Rice explained that the attacks did not appear pre-meditated.
"Our current assessment is what happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, prompted by the video," she said on Meet the Press . She made similar comments on other U.S. TV networks on the same day.
In his press conference Wednesday afternoon in the East Room of the White House, Mr. Obama said Ms. Rice had been giving her best understanding of the intelligence details that she had before her when speaking to the TV networks just days after the consulate attack.
Mr. Obama said there was no debate with Republicans over bringing the Benghazi attackers to justice or finding out what exactly happened that day. "But when they go after the U.N. ambassador apparently because they think she's an easy target, they they've got a problem with me," he said.
The Obama administration's handling of the Benghazi attack became a presidential campaign issue as Republicans criticized the administration for its shifting positions on whether or not the attacks were pre-meditated and carried out by an Al Qaeda-linked group.
Many conservative activists and Republicans believed there was a White House cover-up to downplay any narrative of a resurgent Al Qae da in North Africa at a time when the Obama presidential campaign was touting the president's role as a strong commander-in-chief who had decimated the ranks of the terrorist group, including authorizing the mission that ended in the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Just hours before Mr. Obama's press conference Wednesday, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham called for a Watergate-style U.S. Senate committee investigation in to the Benghazi attacks. Mr. McCain said he would do everything he could to block any future nomination of Ms. Rice to serve as U.S. Secretary of State. Senator Graham said he did not trust Ms. Rice.
Mr. Obama has not indicated whether or not he has decided on Ms. Rice as his choice to succeed Hilary Clinton, who has always said she would leave her current role in the administration after the presidential election. Mr. Obama said during the Wuesday press conference that if he concluded that Ms. Rice was the best for the job, he would go ahead and nominate her.
Shortly after Mr. Obama's rebuke of the Republican senators, Mr. Graham released a statement: "Mr. President, don't 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," said Mr. Graham.