Continuing to attack Mitt Romney's reaction to the embassy attacks in Egypt and Libya, on Thursday's NBC Today, co-host Savannah Guthrie urged Senator John McCain to admit Romney made a mistake: "Was it correct for Mitt Romney to seize on that political opportunity at a moment when the U.S. Ambassador had been killed?" [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]
McCain stood behind Romney's criticism of the Obama administration's initial response to the attacks and added some of his own: "Look, what this is all about is American weakness and the President's inability to lead....Iraq is dissolving, our relations with Israel are at a tension point. He – I'd like to see the President of the United States speak up once for the 20,000 people that are being massacred in Syria. There is an absence of American leadership in the region..."
Guthrie seemed surprised that McCain defended Romney, noting: "It sounds like you agree, sir, with Mitt Romney." At the top of the show, fellow co-host Matt Lauer teased McCain's interview by proclaiming: "Mitt Romney taking heat from some members of his own party for his criticism of the statement from the U.S. embassy in Cairo following the initial demonstration there." Perhaps NBC was hoping McCain would be one of those Romney critics.
Guthrie decided to play a sound bite of President Obama attacking Romney in a Telemundo interview and again pressed McCain: "Understanding that you do agree generally with what Mitt Romney said, did he miss the moment? Did he misread the moment, that at a time when an ambassador was killed, it's a time to set aside politics?"
McCain replied: "It's always a time to set aside politics, but the feckless foreign policy is conducted by this president....There is a belief in the Middle East that the United States is weak and withdrawing..."
Here is a full transcript of the September 13 interview:
7:02AM ET TEASE:
MATT LAUER: And there is political fallout as well, Mitt Romney taking heat from some members of his own party for his criticism of the statement from the U.S. embassy in Cairo following the initial demonstration there. This morning, we'll hear what President Obama has to say about that and we'll get reaction from Republican Senator John McCain.
7:09AM ET SEGMENT:
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Senator John McCain was a key advocate of early U.S. intervention in Libya and a friend of Ambassador Chris Stevens. Senator McCain, good morning to you.
JOHN MCCAIN: Good morning, Savannah.
[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: America Under Assault; McCain on Fallen Ambassador, Romney & Middle East]
GUTHRIE: Let me pick up where [NBC News national security analyst] Mike Leiter left off. Do you believe that Ambassador Stevens was the intended target of terrorists?
MCCAIN: I do. I think the indications of how this attack was carried out clearly indicate that that's the case. And I'd remind you, Savannah, that they just went through a very bloody conflict and there's thousands of weapons in Libya. They have a very weak government. This is their first experiment in democracy. Al Qaeda elements are throughout the country. Their borders are porous. And so it makes for a very difficult situation. But a genuine American hero was Chris Stevens. I was with him on election day on July 7th in Libya. And they voted for a moderate government, not an Islamic government. The majority of the Libyan people are not the kind of people that attacked the U.S. embassy yesterday.
GUTHRIE: I know, Senator, that Chris Stevens was a friend of yours. This is a diplomat who was experienced and did not seek out the cushy assignment. What would you want people to know about him?
MCCAIN: Well, I think the American people should know that he risked his life daily as our representative in Benghazi during the conflict that eventually overthrew Qadhafi. He had a keen sense of humor, he loved his country, he loved the Libyans. And I want to assure you that the last thing that Chris Stevens would want today is for us to just withdraw, because democracy does have a chance in Libya and that was his goal.
GUTHRIE: Let me ask you about the politics of this. This has wormed its way into the presidential campaign and bear with me while I try to lay this out for everybody. In the early hours of this, the embassy in Cairo issued a statement trying to distance itself from that anti-Muslim film. They said that they "condemned the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims." Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, seized on that and accused the Obama administration of basically apologizing for American values. Let's set aside the substance of those remarks for a moment. Let me ask you about the timing. Was it correct for Mitt Romney to seize on that political opportunity at a moment when the U.S. Ambassador had been killed?
MCCAIN: Well, first of all, the statement, as I understand it, was issued before the news of Libya came up. It was a very weak statement on the part of – if you read it in its entirety – on the part of the embassy that does speak for the United States of America. They later withdrew it as the violence escalated there. Look, what this is all about is American weakness and the President's inability to lead.
GUTHRIE: Well, hold-
MCCAIN: Iraq is dissolving, our relations with Israel are at a tension point. He – I'd like to see the President of the United States speak up once for the 20,000 people that are being massacred in Syria.
GUTHRIE: It sounds like you-
MCCAIN: There is an absence of American leadership in the region, and they are very weak.
GUTHRIE: It sounds like you agree, sir, with Mitt Romney.
MCCAIN: I'm saying that the statement that was made about the statement that was made by the U.S. embassy was a very weak statement and the abject proof – object proof of that is they withdrew that statement and changed it later on. They speak for the United States of America.
GUTHRIE: Let me play for you – let me play for you President Obama's response to Mitt Romney on Telemundo, speaking to Jose Diaz-Balart.
BARACK OBAMA: I have observed that there's a tendency to shoot before you aim, as I pointed out. And that as president, my obligation is to focus on security for our people and not having ideological arguments on a day when we are mourning the loss of outstanding, outstanding folks who have served our country very well.
GUTHRIE: Senator McCain, understanding that you do agree generally with what Mitt Romney said, did he miss the moment? Did he misread the moment, that at a time when an ambassador was killed, it's a time to set aside politics?
MCCAIN: It's always a time to set aside politics, but the feckless foreign policy is conducted by this president, who opposed the surge, by the way. And now with the loss of so many American lives that we're, in the words of the General Keene, that we are – we've won the war in Iraq and we're losing peace. The situation with Iran is such that the President of the United States will not even set deadlines. There is a belief in the Middle East that the United States is weak and withdrawing and that's why you're seeing various countries and their leaders reacting. Because they have to live in the neighborhood and they believe the United States is leaving. And this leadership is in a vacuum. And why the President of the United States won't help these Syrians that are being massacred as we speak is beyond comprehension.
GUTHRIE: Well, Senator John McCain, it's good to get your perspective. And our condolences on the loss of your friend, the Ambassador. Thank you.
MCCAIN: Thank you.