Unsatisfied by Susan Rice’s comments during a closed-door Nov. 27 meeting on Capitol Hill, one GOP senator says he “absolutely” would block any White House move to make her America’s next chief diplomat.
Defense News asked Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., minutes after the meeting whether he would place a hold on Rice’s nomination if President Barack Obama formally nominates her to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Oh, absolutely,” an animated Graham shot back. “I would place a hold on anybody who wanted to be promoted to any job who had a role in the Benghazi situation.”
Under upper chamber rules, any senator can place a hold on any executive branch nomination for just about any reason.
Rice met with Graham and other Republican senators who have been highly critical of comments she made days after a deadly Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead. She was attempting to assuage their concerns as the White House mulls whether to nominate her to become secretary of state.
Graham and fellow GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire appeared agitated and unsatisfied as they addressed reporters minutes after the meeting with Rice adjourned.
“Bottom line is I’m more disturbed now than I was before,” Graham said.
Graham’s vow to block the potential Rice nomination came minutes after Ayotte and McCain revealed that during the meeting, Rice admitted information she shared on all five major political talk shows Sept. 16 that had been provided by the U.S. intelligence community was inaccurate.
“It is clear the information she gave the American people was incorrect when she said it was a spontaneous demonstration triggered by a hateful video,” McCain told a small throng of reporters seconds after exiting the meeting. “It was not. And there was compelling evidence at the time that that certainly was not the case.”
“I wouldn’t vote for anyone being nominated out of the Benghazi debacle until I had answers to questions I don’t have answers to,” Graham said.
Speaking with reporters at a roundtable later in the day, Ayotte said that regardless of who the nominee will be for the Secretary of State position, she favors a hold until more details about the attack in Benghazi are released.
“My view is that we should hold on this until we get information, sufficient information produced by the administration,” Ayotte said.
The senators used phrases like “far afield,” “disconnected from reality” and “very disappointed” while explaining their latest views about Rice’s statements on those Sunday shows, and their feelings about how she, the Obama administration and the intelligence community handled the aftermath of the deadly Benghazi attack.
The three Republican lawmakers and others have been voicing strong opposition to speculation that Obama wants to nominate Rice to replace Clinton. The Republicans want answers about how the Obama administration and intelligence community reacted before, during and after the Sept. 11 attack that killed the American ambassador and three others.
On those Sunday shows, Rice stated the Obama administration believed the attack sprang up as an emotional manifestation of a protest over an anti-Muslim video that had been posted online. Rice also said the administration did not believe it was a planned terrorist attack.
Ayotte said that the appearances on the Sunday shows raised question's about Rice's judgement, questions only furthered by the meeting as Rice said that she had access to the classified briefings that intelligence officials say contained the connection to al-Qaida.
"She said very clearly that she did not just parrot back the unclassified talking points that did not contain the reference to al-Qaida," Ayotte said. "There’s a judgment issue about why would you go on every Sunday show and leave a different impression and I think that’s a judgment issue that is a fair issue of inquiry. I still think that there needs to be many more questions answered before we come to a conclusion, but I am deeply troubled by the judgment question."
Graham said there was data available “in real time” to indicate al-Qaida was primed to strike there.
“If anybody had been looking at the threats that were coming out of Benghazi, Libya, it would jump out at you that this was an al-Qaida storm in the making,” Graham said.
The senate trio’s comments indicate Obama has a big decision to make that will affect his second term: Should he nominate Rice and set off a nasty political fight that will play out on cable news? His answer likely will impact his picks for other Cabinet jobs, including secretary of defense.
Following the attack, Obama and other administration officials soon altered course from blaming the video and the subsequent protest. Obama himself called it an act of terrorism as early as Sept. 12 in the White House’s Rose Garden.
Reports surfaced Nov. 20 stating that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) removed from the talking points given to Rice by the intelligence community parts that pointed to al-Qaida involvement.
When that information surfaced, McCain, Graham and Ayotte appeared to soften their collective tone about Rice’s chances of being confirmed by the Senate.
When asked whether the DNI’s removal of the al-Qaida references from Rice’s Sunday show talking points had caused McCain to reverse his stance that Rice is “unfit” to be secretary of state, a senior McCain aide referred Defense News to McCain’s Nov. 18 comments on CBS’s “Face The Nation.”
On that show, McCain questioned whether Rice is qualified, but floated an olive branch.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican appeared to suggest Rice’s confirmation, if she’s eventually nominated, would move forward if she “publicly [comes] back on this show and [says], ‘I was wrong, I gave the wrong information on your show several weeks ago.’”
McCain later, in another TV interview, said he might allow Rice’s possible nomination to move forward if she met with lawmakers.
She did that Nov. 27, but McCain and company were not impressed, and appear to be doubling down on their pledge — first issued Nov. 14 — to block her nomination.
“What’s troubling to me ... [is] when you have a position where you’re ambassador to the United Nations [and] you go well beyond unclassified talking points in your daily preparation and responsibilities for that job,” Ayotte told reporters. “That’s troubling to me, as well: Why she wouldn’t have asked, ‘I’m the one who doesn’t know anything about this, [but] I’m going on every single show.’”
The political drama surrounding Rice likely will have ramifications for the Defense Department and the U.S. defense business sector. That’s because whether she is nominated for secretary of state will influence who Obama picks to replace Leon Panetta if the defense secretary steps down, as he is widely expected to do.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., a top Obama first-term and campaign-trail ally, long has wanted to become secretary of state.
Sources have told Defense News that Obama and his aides realize they owe Kerry for his help over the last four years. They have floated the notion that if Rice ends up at the State Department, Obama might nominate Kerry for defense secretary.
Some Washington insiders, however, question that scenario.
Those insiders say getting Rice confirmed would trigger a major political fight early next year just as Obama and congressional Republicans would be seeking common ground as they work to strike accord on a deficit-reduction bill needed to avoid deep defense cuts — and another recession.
Sources also contend Kerry would prefer the secretary of state job, and question whether he is the right fit for the Pentagon. Some insiders who have long known the former Democratic presidential nominee are worried Kerry would instantly butt heads with many inside the Defense Department, leading to an unproductive tenure.
Zachary Fryer-Biggs contributed to this report.