'Get the transcript'? Okay -- let's get it
In the second presidential debate, Barack Obama set a rhetorical trap for Mitt Romney regarding the Benghazi consulate attack. Romney, caught off-guard, stepped into the trap. Luckily, getting out of this trap will be as easy as calling Obama's bluff during the final debate.
To my mind, the key question regarding Obama's snakelike "Please proceed, Governor" enticement to Romney to continue his claim that Obama had never used the words "act of terror" in his Rose Garden address, followed by his "Get the transcript" gotcha moment, has been somewhat obscured in the initial fallout from this exchange.
Some have cited the Rose Garden speech's placement of the words "acts of terror" to suggest that when Obama used those words, he was not talking about the Benghazi attack at all, but rather about September 11, 2001. However, this argument is highly speculative, given the overall context of the remarks, namely an address to the nation regarding the murder of Ambassador Stevens. At the very least, the administration can simply stick to its claim that Obama was referring to Benghazi, and the whole thing becomes a "we say/they say" stalemate.
Others have focused on the appearance of collusion between Obama and moderator Candy Crowley. True, the moment is by far Obama's most confident of the entire debate. True, he does appear to look at Crowley when he says, "Get the transcript," as though he had reason to believe she had the transcript. And true, this is the moment at which the crowd, led by Michelle Obama, bursts into applause, as though part of a preconceived plan to bury the biggest scandal facing Obama in these final days of the campaign.
Let's assume that the papers Crowley was fiddling with as Obama spoke were indeed the transcript. Perhaps the Obama team, knowing Romney would hit this issue, handed Crowley a copy of the transcript prior to the debate, in anticipation of just such an opportunity. Unless Crowley or someone in Obama's camp explicitly admits to more direct collusion, it is impossible to prove that the moderator was any further "in on" this plan than that. And even if it could be proven, this would only establish that the debate format was rigged for Obama (which we all take to be more or less true anyway), while still leaving Obama's claim standing: he did use the term "terror" in describing the Benghazi attack during his initial statement on the subject.
Both of these avenues -- Obama wasn't referring to Libya when he said "acts of terror," or this was a prearranged ambush -- seem to me to miss a more fundamental point. Even if we accept that Obama was referring to Benghazi when he used the word "terror," and that he was just executing a good debate strategy without unfair help from the moderator, he still has to answer for the fact that this account of things does nothing to detract from the real issue.
In short, whatever particular word he used in the Rose Garden, the president was unquestionably labeling the attack an opportunistic outgrowth of a spontaneous public protest, a protest related to an "offensive" YouTube video. And yet, as we know, there was no protest in Libya whatsoever on that day, and the attack on the consulate was being described by many as a carefully planned terrorist operation (not a spontaneous one) from the outset. (See here.)
Obama's debate prep team gambled everything on the hope that the fudge about his use of the word "terror" in that first address would be enough, if not actually to refute Romney's claim, then at least to confuse and dilute the issue, Bill Clinton-style, in order to defuse it.
Romney must not let this matter go. This is more than a campaign talking point; basic issues of government integrity are at stake. But he need not be stymied by Obama's clever ruse. On the contrary, he would be well advised to call the president's bluff: do exactly as Obama requested -- get the transcript.
My advice to the Romney debate team would be to use his allotted time on this issue, during the final debate, to review Obama's Rose Garden transcript. He might say the following....
Mr. President, the issue, as I raised it in our previous debate, and as others have done elsewhere, is why you and your senior administration officials spent the better part of two weeks defining the planned terrorist assassination of our ambassador in Libya as part of a spontaneous protest over a YouTube video, when in fact, as many foreign news outlets were reporting as early as September 12, there was no known protest anywhere in Libya on September 11.
Just to be clear, Mr. President, in your Rose Garden address on September 12, your first and only direct response to the consulate attack was this:
Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.
Mr. President, when you spoke, in that context, of rejecting "all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others," to what were you referring? And why was that relevant in any way to the "senseless violence" of Ambassador Stevens' death? Was this not a reference to the YouTube video that your administration was citing as the root cause of the violence in question?
And yet it was being widely reported on that same day that there were no protests in Libya, that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had released a message on September 10 calling for retaliation for the killing of a Libyan al-Qaeda commander, and that witnesses were identifying the attackers as members of Ansar al-Sharia, an al-Qaeda affiliated organization.
So why was your administration blaming a video that few had seen, citing a protest that never happened, and exposing to public identification and danger the man who made this unrelated video?
To claim that the facts were unclear at that time does not help us to understand why members of the administration continued to refer to a video and spontaneous protests -- you yourself used the term "natural protest" on September 21 -- for days after more of the facts became known, making it clear that this attack was neither part of a protest nor spontaneous.
Even during those first days, when your administration claims it was still collecting intelligence and trying to sort out the facts, you must explain why you consistently pinned the attacks on a theory for which, as it turns out, there was no supporting evidence. If you didn't know what had happened, you could have said, "We don't yet know what happened." You didn't say that. Instead, you blamed an unseen video and a non-existent protest. You apologized for that video, and expressed outrage against its maker, strongly and repeatedly implying that this was the cause of the Benghazi attack. You went to the United Nations and repeatedly condemned the YouTube video. Your UN ambassador claimed the attack was part of a spontaneous protest against this video.
Mr. President, level with the American people. Did you not seek to tie the murder of four Americans, including your ambassador, to a spontaneous or "natural" protest over a video, long after there was compelling evidence that this was not a plausible account of what had happened?
"Time up, Mr. Romney. Mr. President?"