...On Tuesday night's debate, the evening's most notorious exchange did not begin with moderator Candy Crowley's wildly inappropriate intervention on the "act of terror" question. It almost assuredly began minutes earlier.
The audience question that prompted the exchange came from Long Islander Kerry Ladka, who, reasonably enough, asked in regards to the Libyan consulate, "Who denied enhanced security and why?"
The question went to President Barack Obama, and he launched into a well-rehearsed set piece about how he was handling the issue. Mitt Romney responded much as one would expect him to respond, criticizing the White House response to the attack, especially Obama's Las Vegas trip a day afterwards, and Obama's Mideast policy in general.
It was at this point that the debate, certainly from appearances, took a turn for the prearranged. It was now 70 minutes on. Crowley conceded a shortage of time and an excess of audience questions. Nevertheless, instead of moving on to that next question, Crowley asked a question of her own. Even before she began to ask, however, Obama was strolling confidently towards Crowley as though he knew what was going to happen next.
The question involved Secretary of State Clinton's taking responsibility for embassy security. Asked Crowley, "Does the buck stop with the secretary of state?" Obama was more than ready for this one. "Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job, but she works for me," said he forcefully. "I'm the president, and I'm always responsible."
From there Obama launched into a pitch-perfect, if thoroughly dishonest, defense of his own role in the affair:
The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden, and I told the American people and the world that we were going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror, and I also said we are going to hunt down those who committed this crime.
Obama did not throw the "act of terror" line away. He said it clearly and defiantly, as though he knew he could get away with it. Feigning outrage, Obama then told of how he manfully greeted the caskets as they arrived at Andrews Air Force Base and how he was offended at the very suggestion that anyone on his "team" would "play politics or mislead when we have lost four of our own."
Sensing an opening, Romney moved in for the kill over Crowley's protestations that he respond "quickly." Romney looked straight at Obama, raised his eyebrows quizzically, and asked, "You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you are saying."
Now back on his stool, Obama answered uncomfortably, "Please proceed. Please proceed, governor." Romney turned back to Crowley and said that he just wanted to get Obama's response on record. With the camera still on Romney, the TV audience heard Obama say off-camera, "Get the transcript."
The camera then moved to a wide-shot and showed Crowley waving a piece of paper. Several of my correspondents -- and, I am sure, many others -- believed that to be the transcript and wondered how Crowley just happened to have it.
"He did in fact, sir, call..." said Crowley hesitantly to Romney, "so let me call it an act of terror."
"Can you say that a little louder, Candy?" said a suddenly revived Obama while the Obama fans in the audience, Michelle included, cheered in violation of the rules.
"He did call it an act of terror," said Crowley, consummating the most egregious act of real-time media malpractice in recent memory. She then stumbled through a temporizing bit of nonsense about the two weeks it took for the "whole idea" to be revealed.
When Romney then tried to discuss Ambassador Susan Rice's appearance on five Sunday talk shows, Obama walked into his space and started talking over him. At that point, Crowley said, "I want to move you on and people can go to the transcripts." She then turned quickly to an audience member who wanted to talk about AK-47s -- "a question we hear a lot," said Crowley preposterously.
As to what Obama actually said in his September 12 Rose Garden speech, there is no mystery. He laid out the cause and effect of the Benghazi attack as he saw it one and a half minutes into the presentation: "While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants."
It is hard to misinterpret his meaning. The effort "to denigrate the religious beliefs of others" clearly refers to the absurd trailer for the would-be film The Innocence of Muslims. The violence that followed, says Obama, was "senseless." Here, Obama strongly implies that four Americans were killed in a spontaneous outburst devoid of strategy and provoked by the offending video. There is no other way to read this.
Three minutes later, near the end of a five-plus-minute speech, after discussing the events of September 11, Obama adds, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation." This bit of generic tough talk is the rhetorical life raft to which Crowley, the president, and their fellow travelers cling. Before the emergence of the internet, they might have gotten away it, but as this American Crossroads video unequivocally shows, Obama's "team," the president included, did play politics with the truth for as long as two weeks after the event and right up through the debate.
Obama cannot get away with this. Romney will surely call the president on this during the foreign policy debate on Monday. My suspicion is that Obama was playing for time, that he could not afford a full-body Benghazi blow on Tuesday, that he hoped to reverse the momentum and bury the controversy under the media chatter about the new comeback kid. That did not exactly happen, but he escaped better than he might have.
To save whatever credibility it has, CNN needs to question Crowley regarding her role in this intervention. Why did she serve up Obama that "buck stop" question? Did he know it was coming? Did she wave the paper intentionally to give the illusion that she had the transcript in hand? And finally, how dare she add new information into a debate -- false information at that -- at so crucial a moment?
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