WASHINGTON: A visibly annoyed President Barack Obama and tough-talking Senate Republicans clashed in blunt, harsh terms Wednesday over Susan Rice’s qualifications to become secretary of state, a strong signal that the bitter partisanship that has paralyzed Washington endures and threatens post-election efforts at bipartisan cooperation.
The fight started with trial balloons in the news media this week signaling that Obama plans to nominate Rice as secretary of state when Hillary Rodham Clinton steps down.
Two Republican senators responded Wednesday. Sen. John McCain of Arizona called Rice “not qualified,” and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said, “I don’t trust her,” because of her statements about the Sept. 11 attack in Libya, that killed four Americans.
Obama, in an unusual show of emotion Wednesday, defended Rice, the U.N. ambassador who has been a mainstay of his foreign policy team since his 2008 campaign.
“If Senator McCain and Senator Graham want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” he said at a White House news conference. “To besmirch her reputation is outrageous.”
Rice has been under fire ever since she was dispatched by the Obama administration to tell Sunday talk shows five days after the Libya incident that it resulted from a spontaneous demonstration, a narrative that turned out to be false.
In defending Rice Wednesday, Obama may have inadvertently suggested she lacked the stature of a secretary of state, arguing that she was only a spokesman on the Libya story.
“For them to go after the U.N. ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi?” Obama asked. “And was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received?”
Republicans weren’t buying that.
“This is about the role she played around four dead Americans when it seems to be that the story coming out of the administration — and she’s the point person — is so disconnected to reality, I don’t trust her,” Graham said.
Unfair, protested Obama.
“But when they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me,” Obama said. “If I think that she would be the best person to serve America in that capacity at the State Department, then I will nominate her.”