President Obama on Monday dismissed the growing focus on his administration’s handling of the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, as a “sideshow” and “political circus,” refuting charges that his White House misled the public about the violence that took the lives of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
The president was forced Monday to confront two simmering controversies facing the White House, including its initial claims that the Libyan attack was not a terrorist assault and the more recent revelation that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative political groups.
The twin controversies overshadowed Obama’s meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron and again left the administration on the defensive as the president tries to advance a second-term agenda.
“The whole issue about talking points, frankly, throughout this whole process has been a sideshow,” Obama said, clearly frustrated by the Benghazi inquiries. “There’s no there there.”
Obama and his top surrogates portray the Republican attacks as a political witch-hunt, a GOP obsession with little basis in fact. But newly released emails contradicted earlier White House claims by showing that administration officials deleted any reference to terrorism from its public description of the fatal strike — moving the issue beyond the narrow concern of political opponents.
“We dishonor [the victims of Benghazi] when we turn things like this into a political circus,” the president said.
At the same time, Obama faced questions about his knowledge of the IRS examining the tax-exempt status of conservatives — and the president insisted he just learned of the incident Friday.
“You don’t want the IRS ever being perceived to be biased and anything less than neutral in terms of how they operate,” Obama said from the East Room of the White House. “I’ve got no patience with it. I will not tolerate it and we will make sure we find out exactly what happened on this.”
Obama waited three days to address the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups, including those with the words “Tea Party” and “Patriot” in their name. The IRS said low-level workers did the targeting, but senior officials were aware of the activity as early as 2011, emails show.
Republicans had pressured the president to speak out about the IRS activity, questioning why it took him so long to address wrongdoing widely condemned in both political and media circles.
On a broader level, the Benghazi and IRS questions are problematic for the White House because they reinforce public distrust of federal government institutions.
Obama took questions from just two reporters — one from the White House press corps and another from the British contingent.
The president’s response on Benghazi in no way deviated from that of senior administration officials, even though new emails show they did erase any mention of terrorism from the talking points provided by the CIA and FBI. His remarks reinforced the White House claims that edits they made were merely “stylistic.”