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Obama to McCain, Graham: Rice not an "easy target." "They should go after me"

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has the back of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, whom he may pick to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Obama fired off a warning to Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) at his Wednesday press conference if they go after Rice because of comments she made about the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans were murdered.

You could feel the intensity in the East Room as Obama aimed at the two Republicans, who are talking about Watergate-style hearings over the Libyan killings.

McCain and Graham have said if Obama nominated Rice for secretary of state, they would block her appointment.

"If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," Obama said. ". . . 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," said Obama.

Obama's comments were angry and personal -- emotions rarely on display.

Rice got in a jam when she appeared on Sunday talk shows and said the murders were triggered by an anti-Muslim video produced in the United States. Later, the incident was labeled a terrorist attack -- and Rice's first explanation became a flash point with congressional Republicans and the Mitt Romney campaign.

Obama went to the mat for Rice at the first press conference he held since his re-election -- and, more telling, the first time in eight months he has taken questions from the White House press corps. During his re-election campaign, Obama was focused on getting press from regional and specialty outlets and in targeted national interviews and shows.

The president brushed aside the sex scandal that erupted last Friday, ruining the career of now former CIA Director David Petraeus. "My main hope right now is -- is that he and his family are able to move on and that this ends up a single side note on what has otherwise been an extraordinary career," he said.

The Petraeus scandal and Obama's stand for Rice intersect over the Libya murders -- now seen as planned terrorist attacks. Petraeus was to have testified Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee about whether the U.S. ignored warning signs, and is expected to testify -- probably this week -- despite his resignation.

Republicans have targeted Rice for scorn since she appeared on Sunday talk shows five days after the attacks and talked about the anti-Muslim video as the triggering incident.

Defending Rice, Obama said, "she made an appearance at the request of the White House in which she gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her.

"If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me. And I'm happy to have that discussion with them. But for them to go after the U.N. ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received, and to besmirch her reputation is outrageous.

"And you know, we're after an election now. I think it is important for us to find out exactly what happened in Benghazi, and I'm happy to cooperate in any ways that Congress wants. We have provided every bit of information that we have, and we will continue to provide information. And we've got a full-blown investigation, and all that information will be disgorged to Congress."

I first wrote about Obama and Rice in October 2005, when Obama was a senator from Illinois. That's when Rice was willing to come to Chicago to help Obama raise money for his political action committee, called the Hopefund. Rice -- along with others who served in the Clinton White House -- briefed some of Obama's best donors, a perk for their fund-raising and bundling efforts.

When Obama ran for president in 2007, Rice's support was a big deal -- since she served in the Clinton administration and was pointedly not supporting Hillary Clinton's presidential bid.

Last week, when I wrote that Rice was a potential pick for State, a source familiar with Obama's thinking on this told me not to underestimate the loyalty Obama has to Rice.

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Here's what Obama said about Rice at his first press conference in eight months--and the first since his re-election last Tuesday:

"But let me say specifically about Susan Rice, she has done exemplary work. She has represented the United States and our interests in the United Nations with skill and professionalism and toughness and grace. As I've said before, she made an appearance at the request of the White House in which she gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her.

"If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me. And I'm happy to have that discussion with them. But for them to go after the U.N. ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received and to besmirch her reputation is outrageous.

"And you know, we're after an election now. I think it is important for us to find out exactly what happened in Benghazi, and I'm happy to cooperate in any ways that Congress wants. We have provided every bit of information that we have, and we will continue to provide information. And we've got a full-blown investigation, and all that information will be disgorged to Congress.

"And I don't think there's any debate in this country that when you have four Americans killed, that's a problem. And we've got to get to the bottom of it, and there needs to be accountability. We've got to bring those who carried it out to justice. They won't get any debate from me on that.

"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. And should I choose -- if I think that she would be the best person to serve America in the capacity -- the State Department, then I will nominate her. That's not a determination that I've made yet."

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on November 14, 2012 1:59 PM.

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