WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama lashed out at senior Republican senators yesterday over their criticism of UN Ambassador Susan Rice in the aftermath of the deadly Sept. 11 attack in Libya, saying they should "go after me" and not her.
Setting up a possible Senate confirmation fight, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had vowed shortly before Obama's remarks that he would take all steps necessary to block Rice's nomination if the president taps her to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who plans to leave the administration. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who joined McCain at a Capitol Hill news conference, said he didn't trust Rice.
Obama defended his United Nations ambassador.
"If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham, and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," Obama told reporters at a White House news conference.
"And I'm happy to have that discussion with them. But for them to go after the UN 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."
Within minutes, Graham's response made clear he wouldn't back down from challenging Rice's nomination.
"Mr. President, don't think for one minute I don't hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi," he said. "I think you failed as commander in chief before, during and after the attack. Given what I know now, I have no intention of promoting anyone who is up to their eyeballs in the Benghazi debacle."
At issue are Rice's Sunday talk show statements five days after the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. She attributed it to the outrage in the Arab world over an anti-Muslim video, not terrorism.
Republican critics argued that numerous questions about the attack remain unanswered, among them what Obama's national security team had told him about security in Libya, what steps were taken by Clinton and the role of the U.S. military.
"This administration has either been guilty of colossal incompetence or engaged in a cover-up," McCain said on the Senate floor.