A variety of Romney advisers decided that Romney needed to respond, and drafted a statement. Romney signed off on it.
Romney conflated the Egypt and Libya attacks in his two-sentence statement that said he was “outraged” by the attacks and blamed Obama for not responding more forcefully.
“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,” Romney said in a statement sent out at 10:09 p.m.
The embassy’s statement, meant to head off the protests over the video, said the United States “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.” It continued: “Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy.”
Obama officials on Tuesday night distanced themselves from the statement, saying it was not authorized by officials in Washington. That decision was where Romney focused much of his criticism in his press conference Wednesday.
“It’s their administration. Their administration spoke,” Romney said. “The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth, but also for the words that come from his ambassadors, from his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department.”
Romney went on to use the handling of the situation to try to draw a contrast with his own foreign policy views.
By Wednesday morning, Romney’s campaign did not feel like events had altered enough to change that response. Three other deaths in Libya were confirmed, and campaign aides learned that one of those who died was the US ambassador. But one top Romney adviser said their core message remained the same, and they felt no need to temper the remarks in the aftermath of the deaths.
“It’s tried and true for candidates who are challenging the president to comment on the president’s foreign policy even if there have been fatalities,” said the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “In 2004, how many comments did Kerry have criticizing President Bush when troops died in Iraq?”
And in response to criticism of Romney for being unaware that the embassy statement he faulted was issued before the Cairo attack, Romney aides pointed out that embassy staff did send out a tweet standing by the statement after the protests had begun. The staff later erased the message.
The clash highlights one of the core tenets of Romney’s foreign policy: that Obama has not been forceful enough and has led what Romney has called “Obama’s American Apology Tour.”
Independent fact-checking of the notion of an Obama “apology tour” has found it to be false.
Romney’s response to the unfolding situation in Egypt and Libya comes two weeks after he was criticized for becoming the first Republican presidential nominee since 1952 to not mention war in his acceptance speech. He has also struggled to distinguish himself on foreign policy against a president who has been reminding voters that he oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Some commentators and elected officials stood by Romney.
“He spoke in the tradition of conservative internationalism,” wrote Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.