(WASHINGTON) — President Obama said Wednesday that criticism of his handling of the assaults on American embassies in Libya and Egypt was off the mark, suggesting that Mitt Romney has “a tendency to shoot first and aim later” with his political attacks.
Romney had charged that the Obama administration’s response to the attacks in which four Americans died was “disgraceful” and amounted to apologizing to the militants.
But the Republican presidential candidate came under fire from both Obama and Republicans for the timing and the tenor of his remarks.
“It’s important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts,” the president told 60 Minutes. “And that you’ve thought through the ramifications before you make them.”
Obama defended the messages sent out by U.S. diplomats in Cairo, who early Tuesday released a statement criticizing an American-made film that depicts the Prophet Muhammed, Islam’s founder, in a derogatory way. The film touched off the protest at the Cairo embassy and may have played a role in the lethal Benghazi attack. It also prompted Romney’s criticism.
“It came from people on the ground, who are potentially in danger,” Obama said. “You know, my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they’re in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office.”
The president added, “I think that if you look at how most Republicans have reacted, most elected officials, they’ve reacted responsibly, waiting to find out the facts before they talked … making sure that our number one priority is the safety and security of American personnel.”
Some prominent Republicans joined in questioning Romney’s timing.
Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state under Republican President George W. Bush, said Romney “will find out that first reports from the battlefield are always incorrect …This should be his mantra, so he can speak in a deliberate manner, and not have to repent at his leisure later.”
In a message posted online and to Twitter on Tuesday, the consulate criticized the movie about the prophet for what it called “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims, as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”
In the hours after that note was issued, Egyptian protesters scaled the wall of the U.S. embassy and tore down the American flag, ripping it to pieces.
At that point, the embassy’s original message was deleted and replaced with a new Tweet, which read: “This morning’s condemnation still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the embassy.”
Hours later, militants carried out a lethal attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
About 10 p.m. Tuesday night, Romney issued a statement criticizing the Egyptian embassy’s initial statement, saying it was an Obama administration “apology” to extremists.
The Obama campaign pounced on the timing of Romney’s statement, which broke an arbitrarily held 9/11 detente between the candidates.
“We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack,” Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement.
Romney was undeterred. He held a news conference in Jacksonville, Fla., Wednesday to escalate his criticism.
He said it was “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.”
When told the embassy statement was issued before the Cairo or Benghazi attacks took place, Romney said that the embassy reiterated the point after the walls of the Egyptian embassy had been breached.
He rejected the suggestion during the news conference that his campaign had “jumped the gun,” saying, “I don’t think we ever hesitate when we see something in violation of our principles.”
Romney insisted that the Obama administration had to take responsibility.
“Their administration spoke,” he told reporters. “The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth but also the words that come from his ambassadors, from his administration, from his embassies, from his state department. They clearly sent mixed messages to the world and the statement… is akin to an apology.”
Obama, appearing with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Rose Garden after Romney finished his press conference in Florida, made no mention of his rival but said, “There is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence, none,” and vowed to “bring justice to the killers.”
Vice President Joe Biden was similarly circumspect with his comments.
“There is no place in the civilized world for senseless murder like what occurred last night,” he said at a rally in Ohio. “Our ambassador was in Benghazi while the war was going on, our ambassador risked his life repeatedly while war in Libya to get rid of that dictator was going on.”
Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, who spoke in De Pere, Wisc., was also less overtly political than Romney.
“In the face of such a tragedy, we are reminded that the world needs American leadership,” Ryan said, managing a quick dig at the president. “And the best guarantee of peace is American strength.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Jeanne Sahadi, CNN
Scott Stuntz, Teton Valley News
Eric Bradner, CNN