Sen. John McCain promised Wednesday that he will do “whatever’s necessary to block” U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice from becoming secretary of State, should President Barack Obama nominate her to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton, prompting Obama to issue a spirited defense of Rice.
McCain, R-Ariz., and his Republican colleagues Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire lambasted Rice as untrustworthy for her statements on national television, five days after the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, that it appeared to be the result of a spontaneous uprising prompted by an anti-Muslim video. The group had called a news conference to call for the creation of a special, bicameral commission to investigate the September attack.
Obama said Wednesday that he has yet to decide on who might succeed Clinton, who has long made clear she plans to step down after the president completes his first term.
But he said it was “outrageous” for Republicans to go after Rice.
“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,” Obama said at a news conference. “If I think she would be the best person to serve America in the capacity of the State Department, then I will nominate her. That’s not a determination I’ve made yet.”
Rice’s comments were based on the latest intelligence reports provided to members of the administration and Congress, but the three Republican lawmakers maintained that they conflicted with reality.
“How could she say, five days later, definitively, that there’s no evidence of a coordinated attack when there’s a ream of evidence?” Graham asked. Her assessment, he said, was “so disconnected from reality, I don’t trust her. And the reason I don’t trust her is I think she knew better and if she didn’t know better she shouldn’t be the voice of America.”
Obama defended Rice, saying that she was asked by the White House to make the television appearance and was relying on the intelligence assessments that were provided to her.
Rice has often been cited in recent days as a favorite for the top State Department post. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, is another possible candidate.
Republicans, however, appear determined to hold Rice accountable for the administration’s decisions leading up to the attack by Islamic militants, which left Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead, as well as officials’ disjointed communication with Congress in the wake of the violence.
“We will do whatever’s necessary to block the nomination as far as Susan Rice is concerned,” McCain said.
The opposition to Rice goes beyond the Benghazi incident, which has served to reaffirm some Republican lawmakers’ belief that she is too political and too much of an Obama acolyte to be named America’s top diplomat.
“You don’t end up on every single major Sunday show without affirmatively putting yourself out there, wanting to carry forward a message on behalf of the administration,” Ayotte noted Wednesday. “And I think there is a certain responsibility with the current positions she has to ask proper questions about what we did and didn’t know at that point.”
“I’m not so sure she’s the strongest advocate,” added Graham. “I think she’s more of a political operative than she is anything else when it comes to Benghazi.”
And, he said, “I don’t think we’re doing very well in the U.N., quite frankly.” He added, “China and Russia’s been walking all over us.”
Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is expected to become the top Republican on the Armed Services panel, said Wednesday that he did not think Rice would be a “fitting replacement” for Clinton.
“During her time as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Rice has been the Obama administration’s point person in pursuing liberal causes that threaten U.S. sovereignty,” Inhofe said in a written statement.
Another Republican senator, speaking on background because he has yet to come out against Rice publicly, recently worried that Rice was too much of an Obama “sycophant.”
“Anybody who’s been around Susan Rice knows she’s drank every drop of Kool-Aid about the Obama administration,” the senator said.
Democrats, however, have swiftly come to Rice’s defense, saying Republicans are blowing Rice’s comments on Benghazi out of proportion.
“I understand [McCain’s] position, but I really think it’s unfortunate that statements that she made based on intelligence reports after the Benghazi incident are now being used to, unfortunately, criticize a person who has given a major part of her life to foreign policy with great success,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin said Wednesday.
“If the president should nominate her, I don’t believe that should be any reason to stop her. Sure, ask the hard questions — where did you get that information and why did you say this — but to disqualify her based on a ‘Meet the Press’ appearance,” Durbin said. “I mean, to me, it goes way too far.”
Senate Armed Services chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., also voiced support for Rice on Wednesday.
“I think she’s qualified to be secretary of State,” Levin said.
Levin said he is unhappy that people had already reached conclusions about her without hearing from her on the Benghazi attack. But he added it was too early to know if she could win confirmation.
Niels Lesniewski and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this story.